This might be an odd post but I actually had a great time putting it together!
Nostalgia does weird things to us. For instance, it can make us think that everything was better “before”. Like anime! And I’m not entirely sure that’s true. A lot of my favourite series are relatively new (as in they were made this century for what that’s worth) but then again maybe my own perception is a bit skewed as well.
I decided to explore the question in a very simple and surface-level way for my own curiosity. So I went through a couple of aggregator sites and looked up the most popular anime for each 5-year jump since 1980 to see how bad or different things have gotten and I will also tell you my favourite if it applies.
I know it’s a bit of a weird idea for a post but I just wanted to see how much the passage of time, coupled with the explosive popularity of anime internationally, has had an impact on the anime itself. It should be noted though that the popularity measures are imperfect as they measure current compounded popularity rather than popularity at the time. So let’s say a series was largely ignored when it came out but became popular a decade later because it got released internationally or something, I won’t be able to make the distinction so that’s going to falsify the data a lot. Still, it could give us some interesting leads if nothing else.
1980 – 1985
Here are the top 5 anime by popularity for those years
- Nausicaa Valley of the Wind (39,466) – By a landslide! Not surprising since studio Ghibli anime was for a long time the only thing international anime fans had seen and remains increadably popular
- Angel’s Egg (19,230) – This movie had a resurgence a few years ago and I suspect most people watched it fairly recently rather than when it aired
- Fist of the North Star (13,937) – Now that rings classic anime to me! Wouldn’t say it holds up all that well.
- Macross (13,162) – Space operas were the THING in the 80s
- Urusei Yatsura (10,751) – This classic anime recently made it back into Crunchyroll’s library. I’m not sure if that has had an impact.
My favourite of the period is Rose of Versaille!
So the 80s were marked by socially conscious or just fun science fiction epics and some classic action. Also, a sex comedy because we always love those!
- My Neighbour Totoro (91,871): Unsurprising for the same reason as Nausicca but also well earned. This is a great movie with amazing merchandising potential!
- Dragon Ball Z (91,122): almost as popular as Totoro. Now that’s quite a feat!
- Dragon Ball (80,156): The original Dragon Ball came out 4 years before DBZ and it did very well for itself also.
- Akira (78,071): This is the first anime movie I saw so I’m not surprised to see it high. It was readily available and so very 80s
- Grave of the Fireflies (65,683): I can’t deny it’s a great movie.
My favourite is also Totoro but if we take the manga into account then it would be Akira.
So the latter half of the 80s was marked by to continuing reign of Studio Ghibli as well as a penchant for well-made but kind of depressing movies (all three of them). And some good old fashion ridiculous shonen fun! YAY.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion (157,267): as you can see Eva dwarfs previous titles, well above Totoro which surprised me. Whatever else you may feel about it, there’s no denying that Eva helped bring anime to the West.
- Yuyu Hakusho (60,474): I still need to watch this and I really want to
- Ghost in the Shell (59,656): On the other hand, I thought GITS would have been more popular but I think it might be a series a lot of fans know mostly by reputation.
- Sailor Moon (40,360): Aw man, Sailor moon deserves more views!
- Golden Boy (34,559): I really liked Golden Boy but I don’t know that many people who have watched it. I guess it might have gotten more popular in the last few years.
For me, it’s a toss-up between Eva and Sailor Moon but I also haven’t really seen much anime from the early 90s it seems.
I’m not sure if this means anything but 3 of the top 5 on this list are from 1995 which was a bit of a turning year. the other two are from 1992 so generally speaking there wasn’t that much anime that got popular in those years. There is still a strong Science fiction representation and a slightly raunchy comedy.
Damn a lot came out in the late 90s!
- One Piece (187,159): Still the king of shonen. It sort of thought to argue that anime was better in the 90s when it’s literally the same shows with better production value.
- Cowboy Bebop (170,053): Everyone loves Cowboy Bebop, well at least I do. And it’s such a wonderfully directed show. It doesn’t get enough credit for the technical merits.
- Princess Mononoke (106,375): How could I have forgotten, but more than Totoro? Still, Ghibli is a powerhouse and the fact that one of their marquis movies only made it to number 3 tells you how rich these years were for anime.
- FLCL (80,643): I’m sure this got popular after the fact. I remember watching it a few years after it was released mind you, and no one at all had even heard of it!
- End of Eva (80,224): Despite the troubled end and the fact that this is just a tacked-on movie, the Evangelion name still managed to draw in the audiences!
As we can see there is still a very strong Science Fiction vibe going through the popular titles but One Piece trumps all!
Ok so maybe early 2000s were even better for anime releases…
- Naruto (242,323): Yup, Naruto came out after One Piece and look at that. I watched Naruto so I get it. It’s quintessential!
- Spirited Away (167,039): Possibly Ghibli’s most-watched movie, I remember it mesmerized all my friends!
- Bleach (135,923): I haven’t watched Bleah and although I knew it was popular, I didn’t know it was this popular!
- Elfen Lied (111,751): I can’t quite explain this one. I’ve watched and read Elfen Lied and I can’t quite explain why so many people gravitated to it.
- Howl’s Moving Castle: A second Ghibli movie makes it into the top 5. By the way, I really liked the book, if you haven’t read it, it’s great.
There seems to be a shift towards anime for younger audiences. And I don’t mean that in a bad way but there aren’t those mature slow-burn psychological titles of previous years in this particular list. With one exception these are optimistic and joyful shows you can watch with your kids!
Every time I take another 5 year bracket, it’s another golden time for anime…
- Death Note (323,128): The so far biggest draw ever. I haven’t seen the anime but I love the manga. It’s witty but not too smart to follow, quick-paced and engrossing. I’m glad so many people have watched it.
- Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (270,530): yeah that one! Everyone’s favourite show and I got nothing bad to say.
- Toradora! (219,507) No wonder everyone uses this show as an example of romance anime, it’s the only one everybody has seen…
- Naruto Shippuden (203,591): When you consider the episode counts it’s extremely impressive that Naruto has managed to get such a huge audience for two iterations.
- Angel Beats (198,574): Unexpectedly higher than Clannad. I haven’t watched either but I did play both and, they were ok.
Although so many great anime came out during those years, as far as I was concerned, it was all over once Natsume started airing. Still, one of my very favourite anime and I can’t see it getting beaten anytime soon. I will say, Gurren Lagann also came out in those years and I love it dearly as well.
I really love the spread. These genres and demographics are all over the place and they are all pretty good anime. There’s really something for everyone.
I have a feeling that a lot of people’s favourite anime actually aired in this bracket.
- Attack on Titan (356,471): It helps that it’s still airing so new people are picking up season 1 regularly but it also did a great job both in advertising and sustained tension.
- Hunter x Hunter 2011 (297,605): Look it’s my favourite shounen as well so I get it.
- Sword Art Online (285,566): I gotta say, I have no feelings about this show but I have rarely seen a series spark so much debate simply by existing.
- One-Punch Man (281,889): So many heavy hitters are making this list and the numbers aren’t too far apart!
- Tokyo Ghoul (271,381): I recently said this had to be the most popular zombie anime of all time, I guess I was right.
You now what didn’t make the list, my and a lot of other people’s favourite, Steins;Gate. Also Haikyu!! started in the early 2010s another favourite of mine. From the New World, Humanity has declined, Kuroko, not to mention Penguindrum which is a masterpiece and the first Eccentric Family. As well as Noragami, NGNL, Your Lie in April, Assassination Classroom… just so much great anime!
If I had to be stuck in one of my brackets, this might be it. It also had the best Natsume seasons. Sure the most popular shows were high-action violentish shounen but there was a wide array of anime being made and a LOT of them were great.
- My Hero Academia (329,949): We were all expecting it right. I mean if it hadn’t made a list yet it would have to be here.
- Demon Slayer (291,727): I still really like Demon Slayer and I hope it gets another season. I haven’t seen the movie yet mind you.
- My Hero Academia 2 (257,658): One of the advantages of releasing season close to one another is that you get to keep a lot of your audience.
- Attack on Titan 2 (248,776): See, even though Attack on Titan has a more popular season 1 than MHA, it went down more in season 2.
- Your Name (246,651): Did you know that Your Name and A Silent Voice came out the same year to very similar numbers. Your name wins out overall.
Ok, so I will admit, the last 5 years do seem a bit less exciting than the previous 5 to me. For the first time on this list. Not that I didn’t like these shows but they are very similar in many ways and there are two seasons of MHA. Also sentimental movies are not my favourite thing in the world.
So what did this little experience teach me? Well, it seems that for me personally the first half of the 2010s was my favourite time in anime because of the variety, but then again, every 5 years was just getting better before that and I don’t hate these last 5 years either. It’s entirely possible that the next five will become my new favourite time in anime.
I personally don’t see much difference. Trends change and we went from gritty space opera to gritty crime to gritty urban fiction but it’s essentially the same idea. A good slightly lewd comedy does well no matter the era and the big shonens are always on top. There really hasn’t been much change at all other than Ghibli is less present. But we still have movies like Your Name that bring the spirit of these types of movies to the table.
I found this little walk down memory lane very interesting and I hope you guys did as well. Do you have a favourite time in anime? Do you know why?