The Evolution of Japanese Animation

The Evolution of Japanese Animation


A nime has long been a global cultural phenomenon that speaks an international visual language. Its influence extends to fields ranging from fashion and film, to literature and contemporary art. Whilst anime has become deeply ingrained in our everyday culture, it deserves to be celebrated as a new arena of collectable art. Anime is a storytelling medium that emerged from the manga tradition in Japan. In advance of Sotheby’s online Contemporary Showcase: Anime Go, we look back into the 20th century at Japan's animation industry through each decade of its evolution.

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The history of anime began just after World War II, and in its earliest days was profoundly influenced by the work of Western animators – most notably Walt Disney. The best-known anime series were created during and after the 1960s coinciding with television becoming a more commonplace fixture of households. It was only then that anime could be enjoyed at the home, and not only in the theatre.

Astro Boy by Tezuka Productions Co., Ltd., End and Key Animation Cels with Dougas and Printed Background. Estimate: 40,000 - 80,000 HKD

In 1963, premiering on New Year's Day, Astro Boy was Japan's first commercially successful animated television series and became a touchstone of the now-familiar Japanese anime style. Astro Boy was based on the sci-fi manga by Osamu Tezuka 'Mighty Atom'. In the story an inventor creates Astro, an android boy possessed of human emotions, as a substitute for the inventor’s deceased son. This echoes Disney's Pinocchio where a non-human protagonist is meant to imitate a real boy. However, in Astro Boy, the inventor would later abandoned his creation to a robot circus, leaving Astro to fight against other robots, finally to be rescued by a professor. The series was the first anime to be exported to Western audiences and was well received. The creators would extend it to a multimedia franchise.

Kimba the White Lion by Mushi Production, Kimba and Phoenix Animation Cels with Dougas and Printed Background. Estimate: 50,000 - 80,000 HKD

It's hard to overemphasise the importance of Astro Boy and its creator for their role in the development of anime and manga history. It is owing to Tezuka’s work that Japanese animation was able to develop its distinctive visual style and a range. Tezuka is regarded as the 'godfather of manga', having originated the aesthetics that make Japanese animation what it is today. He founded Tezuka Production in 1968, which created many iconic series including Black Jack and Kimba the White Lion.

Osamu Tezuka, Black Jack and Pinoko . Estimate: 200,000 - 300,000 HKD

GeGeGe no Kitaro first aired in 1968, its earliest episodes in black and white. The characters that inhabit Shigeru Mizuki’s universe are yokai, supernatural spirits of Japanese folklore. These stories were previously considered too scary or gruesome for children. GeGeGe no Kitaro changed this, with misshapen monsters that were at the same time cute and spooky. The importance of this series is evidenced by the fact that it was one of the first chosen by Toei Animation later in 1996–1997, when the studio was looking to experiment with newer digital animation techniques and advancements in computer animation technology.

GeGeGe no Kitarō by Toei Animation Co., Ltd., Kitarō Animation Cel with Douga and Printed Background. Estimate: 30,000 - 50,000 HKD .


Doraemon by Shin-Ei Animation Co., Ltd., Doraemon Blushing Animation Cel with Printed Background. Estimate: 20,000 - 40,000 HKD

Doraemon, the blue cat robot, first appeared in 1970 and has since been a fixture of many a childhood. From the studios of Shin-Ei Animation, the Doraemon series came to life during a decade of rapid technological change and it captured the imagination of the times. Besides being a robot himself, Doraemon can produce from his pocket all manner of nifty gadgets, most of which are prone to backfiring. These magical devices were was often necessary to bail out Doraemon's boy companion, the hapless Nobita, and friends. Set against a historic backdrop of a rising impersonal hi-tech corporate culture, the robot cat as a guardian hero of an unspectacularly average child is a scenario that might be considered a type of wish fulfillment of the everyman. The beloved Doraemon is considered a Japanese cultural icon, and was appointed as the first 'anime ambassador' in 2008 by the country's foreign ministry.

Telling the story of different kinds of robots, the mecha subgenre originated from Mitsuteru Yokoyama's 1956 manga Tetsujin 28. This style of science fiction focuses on giant robots, warfare, and futuristic fighting machines – often with apocalyptic themes. With 1970s came Gundam, a genre-defining series with a highly realistic presentation of robot design and weaponry derived from actual science. Not only has the term Gundam become synonymous with mecha the world over, the series has been used to inspire research and development in creating exosuits for military purpose.


The 1980s is understood as anime's 'golden age'. The surge in creativity along with Japan's economic boom prompted a Cambrian explosion of anime genres, with many iconic franchises that would emerge from this decade. One cannot discuss Japan's unmatched contribution in this art without mentioning Studio Ghibli, the animation production house which created the masterpieces My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli was so named after because, like the Saharan wind, the founders sought to breathe new life into the industry.

My Neighbor Totoro by Studio Ghibli, Mei Poking Totoro’s Tail Animation Cels. Estimate: 50,000 - 80,000 HKD

Amongst the many subgenres that would emerge would be sports anime. Captain Tsubasa, by Yōichi Takahashi, first aired in 1981, telling the story of a boy in his journey top become the best football player in the world. The series was to the first big success of anime in this subgenre in Japan and overseas. This paved the way for others such as Ping Pong the Animation, Prince of Tennis, Hajime no Ippo, and of course, Slam Dunk.

The 'magical girl' (mahō shōjo) is an enduring trope in animation that traces back to the 1960s with Mahōtsukai Sarī (Sally the Witch), and represents ideas of feminine power. Two series would prove to be touchstones of the category: Magical Princess Minky Momo, which aired in 1982, and Creamy Mami, the Magic Angel, which debuted in 1983. Yuji Nunokawa, the producer of both Minky Momo and Creamy Mami, observed that mahō shōjo attracted more male fans after the use of transformation sequences in which the protagonists would morph into their superpower alter egos and save the day. This was employed to great effect later by Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura.

Cardcaptor Sakura by Madhouse Inc., Sakura with Glow Card (Episode 14) Animation Cels with Douga and Printed Background. Estimate: 30,000 - 50,000 HKD

Anime has also brought to life some of the most iconic families in Japanese pop culture. For example, Chibi Maruko Chan or Crayon Shin-chan are two beloved series that portray the adventures of their respective grade school protagonists, with each episode centring on creative pursuits and the importance of family.

Cardcaptor Sakura by Madhouse Inc., Sakura in Prince Costume (Episode 42) Animation Cel with Douga. Estimate: 40,000 - 60,000 HKD


The 1990s saw the wider expansion of anime fandom throughout the world, with the popularity of series such as Dragon Ball and Slam Dunk, representing the martial arts and sports genres, respectively.

Dragon Ball Z by Toei Animation Co., Ltd., Super Saiyan Goku in Saiyan Battle Armor PAN Animation Cel with Hand-painted Original Background. Estimate: 50,000 - 80,000 HKD

Die-hards would say that Dragon Ball is the most popular anime series every created. Its legions of fans continue to grow to this day. Written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball was adapted from the 1986 manga, which in turn was inspired by the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West. The anime series would introduce the martial arts subgenre through the adventures of Son Goku, who is training in martial arts in order to find seven orbs. The Dragon Ball universe is expansive, populated by a diverse cast with long character arcs, including formidable villains, and tells of adventures filled with training sequences and light-hearted plot lines.

Slam Dunk by Toei Animation Co., Ltd., Hanamichi Sakuragi Animation Cel with Hand-painted Original Background. Estimate: 50,000 - 70,000 HKD

Slam Dunk would also make a big cultural impact beginning in 1993, credited with spurring on the popularity of basketball among the Japanese youth during the decade. Slam Dunk's appeal was its realism, inspirational speeches, and its central idea of strong team bonds. Artist Takehiko Inoue and his published Shueisha created a Slam Dunk Scholarship program in 2006, awarding a fully paid academic and athletic scholarship to a university-preparatory school in the U.S. In 2010, Inoue received special commendations from the Japan Basketball Association for his work in popularising basketball in the country.

Slam Dunk by Toei Animation Co., Ltd., Kaede Rukawa Drinking Animation Cel with Printed Background. Estimate: 30,000 - 50,000 HKD .
Neon Genesis Evangelion Produced by GAINAX Co., Ltd. and Animated by Tatsunoko Productions Co, Ltd., Misato Katsuragi Animation Cel with Douga. Estimate: 30,000 - 50,000 HKD

In 1995, Neon Genesis Evangelion would go on to redefine the mecha genre by delving deeper into the philosophical question about what it means to be human and reflecting the anxieties of the time. Developed by Studio Gainax Neon Genesis Evangelion at a time when the anime industry appeared to go into a slump. The innovative series redefined the mecha genre by delving deeper into philosophical questions about what it means to be human and reflecting the anxieties of the time. The impact of Evangelion was significant on not only animation, but also Japanese art and popular culture. The success of the iconic series led to a rebirth of the anime industry.

Sailor Moon by Toei Animation Co., Ltd., Sailor Moon Special Move Bank Animation Cel with Douga and Printed Background. Estimate: 40,000 - 60,000 HKD

Sailor Moon emerged on the scene in this decade and would endure as a staple of the magical girl series. Created by Toei Animation, the series offered powerful models of feminism and empowerment of young women. The series features heroines who were Sailor Senshi (‘Sailor Warriors’). They appeared to be average teenage girls but were capable of transforming into powerful guardians against villains from space. This transformation concept proved to have widespread appeal, and it redefined a whole genre of manga that featured groups of strong female protagonists. Another well loved series Cardcaptor Sakura would diversify mahō shōjo with more inclusive elements and subvert many of the stereotypical elements in anime of its time.

Tonde Burin by Nippon Animation, Karin Kokubu, Transformed Animation Cel with Douga and Printed Background. Estimate: 20,000 - 40,000 HKD .


On its 25th anniversary this year, Pokémon is still going strong. The franchise warrants its own section for a number of reasons. This series, which focuses on the capture and evolution of pocket monsters, has itself evolved from cute concept into a global behemoth. Nintendo released the original games Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green in 1996. The concept where players can advance by collecting, training, and battling their Pokémon quickly caught on, and a year later it became the basis for other media such as anime and trading cards. So popular was this franchise that it seemed the entire world was gripped by so-called 'Pokémania'. It has gone on to become the most valuable media franchise, with a revenue of US$100 billion and with a fan base that remarkably has not waned throughout its 25-year history.

Anime has spun off into different media – notably trading cards. To this day, the Pokémon trading card game endures continues to attracts fans. The premise of the game translates particular well with trading cards, because both reward greater time investment as the chances of finding rare Pokémon increases the more you play. Similarly, Yu-Gi-Oh! was named the top trading card game in the world, named by the Guinness World Records in 2009. Collectors of these trading cards are still very much engaged with curating and building their decks – now more than ever as the values of some of these cards have soared.

The Pokémon Company, Nintendo Inc., Japanese Pokémon TCG x Edvard Munch: A Retrospective Exhibition, The Scream (set of five) . Estimate: 35,000 - 60,000 HKD .

Contemporary Art

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