Every decade is full of formative anime, but the 1980s were especially important and dense in groundbreaking series that have changed the industry.
Groundbreaking anime comes around every decade, and it’s interesting to examine the different changes that accompany these contrasting time periods. There are still plenty of modern anime that subvert expectations and redefine the medium, like Wonder Egg Priority, Lycoris Recoil, or Jujutsu Kaisen, but it’s also important to not overlook the past and the important series that have helped anime get where it is today.
The 1980s were an important transition period for anime where the medium started to take greater risks and experiment with genre and form. Some of these old-fashioned anime may seem retro or lost in nostalgia, but there is still an abundance of ‘80s anime that can hold their own against any current hit.
Gunbuster is one of the first anime productions by the acclaimed animation studio Gainax, as well as an early directional effort by Hideaki Anno. Gunbuster in many ways feels like a trial run for Evangelion and it’s one of the strongest and most economical mecha stories to come out of the ’80s.
Gunbuster focuses on humanity’s desperate attempts to train mecha pilots to take out an alien menace, but its real priority is Noriko’s growing pains as she sacrifices her livelihood for this greater cause. Gunbuster‘s 2000s sequel, Diebuster, still has a lot to offer. However, it pales in comparison to the ’80s original, which was a breath of fresh air at the time of its release.
9 Urusei Yatsura
Rumiko Takahashi’s anime contributions have helped shape the industry in important ways, whether it’s the slapstick shonen antics of Ranma ½ that were prevalent through the ’90s, or the feudal Japan demon fantasy hijinks of InuYasha that was a hit in the 2000s. Urusei Yatsura is the perfect middle ground between Maison Ikkoku’s grounded romance and Ranma ½‘s comedic action mishaps.
Ataru Moroboshi is a consummate slacker who finds his life forever changed after he unintentionally becomes betrothed to a fiery extraterrestrial named Lum. Urusei Yatsura sets a strong example of how to deliver a long-form romance that keeps the audience in suspense, but never feels manipulative. Its zany comedy also strongly reflects ’80s sensibilities.
8 Lupin The Third Part III
Monkey Punch’s Lupin the 3rd crime series has endured for over 50 years and become anime’s most famous gentleman thief property. Lupin the 3rd occasionally changes in tone and style, but the building blocks of this slapstick criminal genius are always entertaining.
Previous Lupin the 3rd productions fluctuated between overly serious and extremely silly, but Part III takes the greatest creative license with various ideas. Lupin’s “pink jacket” adventures are easily the character’s most expressive, and showcase that a master of the trade can still occasionally be deeply comical and unprofessional.
7 Maison Ikkoku
Rumiko Takahashi has proven herself to be a master of juggling diverse genres with fantastical twists, whether it’s Urusei Yatsura, Ranma ½, or InuYasha. Maison Ikkoku is Takahashi’s most ordinary series, which is likely to resonate with those who thought her other works were too out there.
Maison Ikkoku finds success through its compelling and grounded human interactions, as well as the awkward comedy and endearing romance that stems from its two main characters, Yusaku Godai and Kyoko Otonashi. Kyoko’s status as a young widower who’s still Yusaku’s senior becomes the secret ingredient for Maison Ikkoku‘s success and distinct slice of life stories.
6 Captain Tsubasa
Anime is a medium that loves to celebrate sports, and Captain Tsubasa is the most successful anime soccer franchise to date. Captain Tsubasa has a wealth of video games and subsequent sequels have been fixtures of the ’90s and 2000s. However, these expansions still feel like they’re chasing the high of the 128-episode ’80s original.
Captain Tsubasa doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and it applies a humble yet thorough approach to Tsubasa Oozora’s progression through soccer alongside his friends. Captain Tsubasa‘s lengthy run ensures that genuine character development is experienced between Tsubasa and company, and it genuinely feels like they’ve grown by the end of the anime.
5 Fist Of The North Star
Buronson and Tetsuo Hara’s Fist of the North Star stands out because of the burly nature of Kenshiro and the rest of the heightened series’ muscled warriors. Set in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth, the lonely Kenshiro wanders the land and makes use of a fatal martial arts style that pinpoints his opponents’ vital weaknesses.
Fist of the North Star tells a mature story that often feels like Mad Max meets Dragon Ball. The characters and their energy is so iconic that it’s become a major influence on other celebrated anime like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. The recent announcement of a new Fist of the North Star anime adaptation means that it’s the perfect time to revisit this 1980s masterpiece.
4 Dragon Ball
Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z is arguably the mangaka’s most popular entry in his signature shonen series. However, the original Dragon Ball lays the foundation for this evergreen anime hit that’s only grown more popular over time. Dragon Ball Z gets a little too lost in prolonged battles, while its predecessor is just as interested in outlandish comedy and unconventional characters.
Dragon Ball beautifully balances its comedy and action impulses, not to mention a very grounded approach to martial arts that doesn’t feature flight until its concluding chapters. Many standout shonen series (such as One Piece and Naruto) likely wouldn’t exist without the framework introduced in Dragon Ball.
3 Super Dimension Fortress Macross
The ’70s opened the floodgates for mecha space opera series, and the ’80s became the decade that started to perfect this genre. The Macross franchise has become an important pillar of mecha anime, all of which begins with Super Dimension Fortress Macross.
The original Macross series does exceptional work with its presentation of a fractured future that’s both reliant upon and increasingly afraid of society’s growing reliance on technology, especially that which doesn’t originate on Earth. Macross indulges in a human-alien conflict, complicated space politics, and an emotional love triangle, but in ways that highlight how these stereotypes can improve mecha series instead of hold them back.
2 Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War In The Pocket
The Mobile Suit Gundam mecha franchise is more than four decades old, and some of its most exciting material comes out of the ’70s and ’80s when the Universal Century timeline was still in full swing. Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket is the franchise’s first OVA series, and it benefits from the decision to tell a smaller-scale, intimate side story.
A simple Gundam recovery mission turns into a powerful distillation of the horrors of war through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy. War in the Pocket still includes some exciting mobile suit combat. However, its decision to tell a more character-driven melodrama was groundbreaking in terms of redefining what could be done in a Gundam series.
1 Legend Of The Galactic Heroes
Legend of the Galactic Heroes made its epic return in 2018 to much acclaim, but the original long-running OVA series is hard to top. The first installment of Legend of the Galactic Heroes helped close out the ’80s, but in doing so also helped solidify some crucial space opera storytelling tropes. Legend of the Galactic Heroes has tremendous reverence for the limitless nature of the galaxy and its incredible extraterrestrial inhabitants.
However, this ’80s vehicle also digs deep into human melodrama while these individuals are confined to spaceships. It’s a series that stokes the flames of science-fiction curiosity while maintaining an emotional foundation to hold it all up.