Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most important anime of all time. It fundamentally shifted the industry, playing a large role in the revival of TV anime while practically creating the idea of late night shows aimed at otaku audiences. It brought greater recognition to archetypes like tsundere and kuudere, and its influence can still easily be seen today.
In short, Eva is pretty vital to the history of anime as a medium. It’s a show that everyone knows you’re supposed to watch at some point, even if some people never will. It might be a divisive show with plenty who dislike it, but it’s pretty well accepted by the anime community at large that it’s at least worth checking out for the historical value alone, if not its actual quality.
The same applies to some other old shows. Cowboy Bebop is still hailed as a classic, and while a part of that may be due to its historical presence on Toonami in the west, it’s not something that’s changed even as the anime community has grown in size over the last few years. Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and a few other anime from before 2000 are still regularly praised and recommended to beginners, being seen as a part of the general community’s ‘canon’ of worthwhile anime. Shows with nostalgic value manage to see discussion as well every once in a while.
But by and large, old anime is not well watched or discussed. Outside of the shows I mentioned and a few others, it’s rare to see anything from before the year 2000 recommended, and most people simply aren’t going to watch anything from that period.
Now, to be fair, people are going to have a hard time consuming past works in any medium. As time progresses technology improves, and that results in dramatically different standards in terms of production. If you get used to a 16:9 aspect ratio it can be a bit hard to go back and watch things in 4:3 for instance. Tons of people have a hard time watching black and white movies, and early 3D video games aren’t easy for anyone. But I think it’s fair to say that there’s more exploration of the past in most other mediums than in anime.
This is obviously true for books, where people are fairly likely to read older works, but I do think it applies to movies and video games as well. 70s and 80s movies are quite popular, even among people who weren’t around to watch them, and plenty of people go back and play SNES or Genesis games. This simply doesn’t seem to be the case for anime, at least not outside specific circles.
It shouldn’t be hard to admit that old anime has value, even if you are someone who’s turned off by dated visuals. Writing hasn’t shifted that much in the last few decades, so it’s a given that there are plenty of interesting, well-written series in the past. And so, I’m going to make an attempt to persuade you to watch old anime. I really believe it’s worth it, and I believe we’d all be better off if people in the community were more attuned to the medium’s history and more willing to watch the great works of the past.
The most common reason I hear for not watching old anime is not liking the way it looks. Now, this isn’t necessarily something I can change, but I think it’s worth pointing out some flaws in this argument.
Old anime obviously don’t all look the same. Such a statement is as absurd as the claim that all anime looks the same in general, something we all regularly laugh at. If you look at Belladonna of Sadness, Night on the Galactic Railroad, and Ghost in the Shell you’ll see totally different art styles. Every decade of anime might have a “generic” art style, but even that shifts over the years. The average show from the 70s looks nothing like the average show from the 90s.
Of course, it’s possible that some people just hate the way cel animation looks in general, hard as that is for me to understand. There’s no way I can change that opinion, but I do think there are some misconceptions I can clear up.
I’ve seen some people say that their dislike of cel animation comes down to a lack of familiarity with the style. Now, I’m not about to dictate people’s experiences, but I find this a bit hard to believe. Cel animation was phased out by the time I started watching cartoons as a kid and yet I’m still very familiar with it. I’m sure there are some people who didn’t grow up with it, especially among the youngest in our community, and I’m willing to acknowledge I probably watched more old cartoons than most, but almost everyone I’ve ever talked to watched Pokemon and other shows of that nature as a kid, shows that were certainly drawn on cels.
And if you’re going to criticize the way shows were drawn at any point, it’s hard to believe you’d target the cel era over the early digital era. Almost everything made in the early-2000s looks like total garbage because people just didn’t know how to use the technology yet. Compare Revolutionary Girl Utena to Kanon(2002) or Phantom or hell even Simoun. Even better as a comparison, look at Cardcaptor Sakura next to Chobits, two Madhouse adapted Clamp works. The difference in visual quality is striking.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing good from the early digital era, or that everything from the cel era looks great. Saying that would be taking things way too far. But I do think that people who assume cel animation is going to look dated and ugly are ignoring a period that’s far worse. Much like the early 3D period for video games, anime’s transition from cels to digital was hard, and I think that goes overlooked by those who don’t watch pre-2000s anime.
Another frequent claim I see is the idea that old anime has bad animation. Now, this is subjective of course, but it’s less dependent on personal taste than the art style, so I think it’s a bit easier to debunk.
Anime has, on average, never looked that great. Even from the beginning of TV anime with Astro Boy corners have been cut and limited animation has been the norm. This has prevailed for over 50 years and there are no signs it’s going to change anytime soon. But it’s important to recognize that while animation hasn’t gotten worse, it hasn’t really gotten that much better either. Sure, there are more talented animators now as a result of there being more anime in general, but anime in the past was hardly lacking in great cuts.
You can go back to Astro Boy itself and find some neat animation. At any and every period there are talented animators. Mobile Suit Gundam had plenty of errors, sure, but it had a number of impressive scenes as well. It’s well known that the production of Eva kind of exploded in the final episodes, and yet Yoh Yoshinari’s cut of Shinji transforming in episode 26 is amazing, and I don’t think I need to point out how good End of Eva looks. Techniques like the Itano Circus and the Obari Punch were pioneered in this era, and it’s not a stretch to say that the many, many OVAs of the 80s such as Gunbuster and Bubblegum Crisis had some really fantastic animation. And without directors like Dezaki, limited animation would be a lot less enjoyable to watch. I guess it’s theoretically possible for someone to hate every animation style from this period, but I don’t see it as particularly reasonable or likely. Far more likely is that someone just remembers Pokemon and generalizes the animation of something like that onto old anime as a whole.
I’ve been a bit dismissive about the art and animation complaints, primarily because I think they’re very silly, but there are legitimately understandable reasons for why people don’t watch much old anime.
The foremost of those is ease of access. The majority of worthwhile classic anime aren’t licensed, and those that are licensed are usually available only on physical media, not on any streaming sites. This is a huge barrier because people who want to watch anime legally just don’t have an option for watching many shows. Hell, Eva itself isn’t officially licensed anywhere in America right now, and that’s a real problem. While I understand that licensing can be complex, this is definitely a fault of licensors, not fans, and while I wish everyone would just torrent the old anime they want to watch, I understand why that’s not something a lot of people are going to do. I’m pretty confident in saying that a lot of these shows would be more watched if they were on Crunchyroll, Netflix or some other streaming site.
Another big problem is simply how anime is discussed. The bulk of discussion surrounding anime is very focused on seasonal shows. Even I’m guilty of this; while I watch plenty of stuff on my backlog, I spend more time talking about my weeklies. And that makes sense because airing shows have to be watched by everyone at the same time, while older anime can be watched whenever someone feels like it, making it hard to get deeper discussions going unless you’re doing a group rewatch. If you mainly watch anime as a way of keeping up with the community, I totally understand not watching old shows, though I do think it’s a major shame.
I’m sure there are other reasons people don’t watch old anime, but I feel like I’ve covered all the ones that people regularly mention, so I can finally get onto the important part: justifying why old anime is worth watching in the first place.
The most obvious reason is that you’re going to miss out on a lot of shows you would otherwise like if you don’t watch old anime. Eva is a great example, but there are so many more interesting works that aren’t exactly going to be remade. I just finished watching Onii-sama e…, a show which has incredibly interesting directing paired with some of the best-written melodrama I’ve ever seen. Its use of lighting to convey tone is excellent, and it’s basically the best soap opera in anime. Just watching this show was enough to seal Dezaki as one of my favorite directors. If I didn’t watch old anime I’d have missed out on it, which would be a major shame.
There’s also so much variance and experimentation in old anime. This is particularly true for OVAs, but it can be seen in movies and shows as well. You can find brutal space operas like Zeta Gundam, contemplative anti-war dramas like War in the Pocket, and fantastical mecha adventures like Turn A Gundam. And those are only Gundam shows I’ve seen, a small sliver of all the shows worth watching from back then. Entire genres like sci-fi saw many more shows in the past, particularly in sub-genres like mecha and cyberpunk. If you’re not interested in that kind of story you won’t care much, but I suspect most people would like some shows from this period, just because there are so many different kinds. From almost no other era will you find a trippy, fairy tail-esque, feminist masterpiece like Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Another reason that old anime is worth watching is simply for the history. Now, I understand that I’m far more interested in anime as a medium with a history than many other fans, so this won’t apply equally to everyone, but I think anyone who self-identifies as an anime fan owes it to themselves to learn something about the medium’s past. That doesn’t have to happen by actually watching older shows, but it certainly helps enrich one’s knowledge of the medium.
Learning more about the industry’s history only makes modern shows more enjoyable. Watching Sailor Moon makes it more interesting to watch Madoka or YuYuYu or Precure, because you know how the genre came to be the way it is. The same applies for just about any influential classic; when you watch anything in the future that references it or borrows ideas from it, you’ll appreciate it to a greater extent. Watching Dezaki shows is making anime in general so much more interesting to watch, because he had such a major influence on the industry. Seeing the techniques he pioneered get used in modern shows only makes anime more rewarding as a whole. Like I said, there are people who don’t care about this kind of thing at all, but I think most would benefit from at least a cursory glance at the past beyond Eva. At the very least it would reduce the number of people who think Madoka and Eva “deconstructed” the genres they come from, and I think most people can agree that would be a valuable outcome.
As I’ve said throughout this, I totally understand why people don’t watch old anime. It can be hard to get ahold of, is quite different from the stuff people are watching today, and isn’t often talked about. But I think there’s so much value in older anime that goes underappreciated. People shouldn’t be so quick to discard the classics. I’m not expecting this video to push the community at large to start watching old anime or anything, but I do hope it can motivate at least one person to start. Even that little push could help us move towards a culture of appreciation for the classics, something that would really help the fandom.