It is time for another tumble through the history of the anime medium. Last time, we counted off what the most iconic anime from the 90s were. Now we go back even further to the decade where anime seriously started taking shape: the 80s! A time of funky music, crazy hairstyles and ridiculous amounts of fun, and fittingly enough, this vibe appropriately defines most 80s anime.
As we go further back in time, I’ve had to sift through anime that, while popular at the time, have become far more obscure thanks to the creative boom of anime shows we have experienced over the last decade or so. But fear not, for I will be here to guide you through all of it. Without further ado, we kick off our list with the number 10 pick.
10. Lupin III Part 3 (1984)
In a franchise that has been running for the better part of half a century, there are bound to be at least one or two black sheep that crop up. For the beloved Lupin III property, that comes in the form of this third incarnation of the fictional descendant of Arsène Lupin. The reason it even makes it on the list is because of how infamous of a reputation it has among the fanbase. Relying on slapstick humor that nowhere near matched the wit of the second series and definitely didn’t align itself closer with the manga like the very first adaptation, Lupin III Part III is the third wheel of this franchise and not looked back on too fondly, if at all. As the Star Wars prequels and The Godfather Part III have proven, there is an unequaled level of infamy you gain from being a disappointment, and that is what best describes Lupin III Part III.
9. Aura Battler Dunbine (1983)
Love fantasy? Steampunk? Epic battles? Then Aura Battler Dunbine is definitely the series for you.
Aura Battler Dunbine creates a unique blend of fantasy and action for its audience, all the while mixing in familiar tropes for viewers to chew on. You have a lot of romance, a lot of action, and plenty of imagination. Dunbine’s blend of the mech and fantasy genre was both distinct and refreshing, helping prove the point that a show need not confine itself to a single genre to have a focused narrative.
8. Astro Boy (1980)
It’s very difficult to gauge the popularity of a series like Astro Boy today. It’s one of the most recognized anime franchises out there, but in the general consciousness of the public, I have not seen much mention of it. In fact, I doubt that I’ve heard anybody talk about any of the different series, even fleetingly, and especially not this 80s incarnation of the titular character. This certainly wasn’t helped by the lackluster 2009 adaptation with Freddie Highmore and Nicolas Cage. The only reason I even remember it exists is because my father had paid for us to watch it as a rental. That doesn’t automatically stop something from sucking, though.
It boasts a unique and cute art style, the premise is certainly unique, but I find it doesn’t have a lot of staying power as compared to other shows on this list. It’s clear that Astro Boy’s time in the sun has long since passed, but given the standing of the entire franchise as a whole, it does deserve a spot on this list.
7. Patlabor: The TV Series (1989)
Picture Law and Order. Now I want you to make it twice as awesome and put in a bunch of robots. That’s Patlabor, and it’s pretty damn cool.
This show portrayed giant mecha having purposes outside of just combat, war or police work, and instead shows them being integrated into everyday life. This little detail is what helped Patlabor stand out from the crowd. It’s light-hearted approach to the different cases that the characters tackle allow for enough levity to be injected into it while still maintaining a fair amount of tension and structure to follow for each episode.
6. Legend of the Galactic Heroes (1988)
Anime tends to infuse some degree of science fiction into their stories, but Legend of the Galactic Heroes is undoubtedly a show that fully embraces its science fiction core and runs with it all the way through. Politics, intrigue, tales of heroism and a sweeping, epic scope provide all the more value to all the little details that make up this world.
All these different storylines blend together across multiple different characters and relationships, even years once you consider the centuries of history that have led to the formation of this intergalactic society. It feels much in the same vein as Dune or an Isaac Asimov story; speculative science-fiction that pushes boundaries and proves that yes, there is no limit when it comes to space.
5. Ranma ½ (1989)
It’s difficult not to rely simply on crude humor to make a sexually-charged romantic comedy entertaining, but Ranma ½ definitely does it. Very few shows can claim that they have a protagonist that willingly changes sexes, and in addition to that, the actual sex changing itself does not feel like a gimmick. It mixes in a comfortable bit of magic to make the actual sex changing possible, but rather than feeling outright uncomfortable, it’s toyed with in a way that allows scenes to breathe and the comedy to come naturally.
Oddly, Ranma ½ is also a rare example of a show that feels comfortable remaining somewhat static given how the characters interact with one another precisely because the way said characters are acting is what makes the show so appealing. For this reason, I find Ranma ½ very approachable and appropriately popular because of it.
4. Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam
While the actual Gundam franchise didn’t catch on in North America until the 90s with Mobile Suit Gundam Wing as I mentioned in the list made prior to this one, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam is still a rollicking mecha anime series. It serves as the direct sequel to the first Gundam series, Mobile Suit Gundam, and follows both new characters and old as they attempt to fight back against the Titans of the Earth Federation. During the series, characters from different sides of the conflict are encountered and interact with the protagonist, Kamille Bidan.
We get to see more combat between the Gundams, explore new parts of this universe, and most of all, expand the lore tremendously by having all these different characters band together or come into conflict. It retains an epic sensibility to this day, and though this show itself had a direct sequel in that of Mobile Gundam ZZ, if you had to choose only one of either show to watch, Zeta is your best bet.
3. Fist of the North Star (1984)
I highly doubt that you’ll find a manlier anime out there. Most anime series have protagonists that flit between being bishounen or normal, but Fist of the North Star gives us a character in that of Kenshiro who is blatant, hot-blooded, and masculine. Inspired by Bruce Lee and the fictional Max Rockatansky from Mad Max, Kenshiro is shown to be the ultimate warrior, taking on opponents with a vicious ferocity and determination. He always fights to save the lives of others in the hellish setting that the world has turned into in the show. This automatically makes him sympathetic and ensures that you as the viewer would never want to cross him.
Through unrelenting trial after trial, enemy after enemy and loss after loss, Kenshiro never gives up, and his unmatched fighting prowess forms much of the show’s appeal. The unrelenting nature of the story is captivating, and it has stayed in the minds of anime fans ever since its debut. There will always be fearsome martial artists within Japanese fiction, but it’s clear that very few humans can take on Kenshiro at full strength and live to tell the tale.
2. Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (1982)
Ever heard of Robotech? Yeah, that’s an amalgam of several different anime shows edited together to create a new story, and one of those shows thrown into the mix was Super Dimensional Fortress Macross. The series in its original glory is a space opera set in Japan that blends in a hefty dose of mecha action, apocalyptic scenarios, Japanese music and of course, the ever-infamous love triangle plot device.
SDFM is one of the staple science-fiction anime out there, no question about it. It introduced us to one of the first “idols” in Japan, Lynn Minmay on top of forming the basis for Robotech, inspired many other mecha/sci-fi shows, and featured alien-human interactions that play upon some of the more nonsensical aspects of human behavior. It’s a very intriguing narrative and one that I would be curious to see revisited in some way if the beleaguered Robotech live-action adaptation ever actually gets off the ground.
1. Dragonball Z (1986)
Were you expecting anything else? With continuous anime film adaptations and now a new show following it, Dragonball is far and away one of the most famous anime franchises in all of history. Its success is titanic and exceeded by very few. I would’ve considered it was cheating to include the original Dragon Ball series in this list, so I’m just going to loop it in with its far-more-famous follow-up series Dragon Ball Z. It follows the character of Goku and his relationship with his son Gohan as they go on adventures together and fight various threats to Earth and the greater galaxy as a whole. Well-known for its long fight sequences and light-hearted brand of humor, Dragon Ball Z’s popularity is unique in that it seems to keep growing with each passing year, with more and more fans entering the fold.
It’s very clear that when most people think of anime from the 80s, they immediately think of Dragon Ball. This stands as a testament to how successful the franchise truly is, and I highly doubt that any other Dragon Ball material that comes afterward can even come close to being the worldwide phenomenon that Dragon Ball Z is. It’s fun, the comedy never feels overbearing, Akira Toriyama’s art style is eye-catching, and it does have some legitimately emotional moments throughout. For all those reasons and more, Dragon Ball Z is far and away the most iconic anime from the 80s, and that’s never changing.
But that’s just my take on it! Would you be willing to argue for a different series to take the number one spot that I’ve given to Dragon Ball Z? Are you now more interested in watching some of these shows? Thank you very much for reading. Now, go watch some anime.