What are “classics”? Those born in the eighties might say anime such as “Cowboy Bebop” or “Cardcaptor Sakura” should be counted as classics, but while these series are fundamentally important to the art form of anime as a whole, would these series ever be considered the foundations of the medium?
In order to find the series that shaped the later generations of anime and sparked the imaginations of today’s animators, one must go back much farther. Back to a time before the moon landing, when the thought of space exploration was only a dream. These are the top series that defined the genre and sculpted the young minds of boys and girls everywhere. Anime is what it is today thanks to these shows.
10. Cutey Honey
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: October 13, 1973 – March 30, 1974
Revolutionary for its time, Cutie Honey is the first series to have a female protagonist in a shounen series aimed at young men. It was originally supposed to air in a shoujo spot, but was booted and forced to air at a time where a shounen series would usually go. And despite it being shounen, the series is still considered to be an inspiration for future magical girl anime. Cutie Honey is well known as one of the first anime to feature its female protagonist losing all of her clothes during her transformation scenes, something that is now a staple of the magical girl genre. Despite what people think, the nudity was actually added to draw more young men to watch the series (it was the 70s) along with added action scenes that were previously unwritten in the manga.
The anime features a young android girl, Honey Kisaragi, who only discovers what she is when her father is killed by the evil Panther Claw who is after the secret device hidden in Honey that can create endless jewels and therefore make a profit. In order to defend herself, Honey is able to transform into seven different forms: Hurricane Honey, a biker woman; Misty Honey, a rocker with a microphone for a weapon; Idol Honey, a flight attendant (?); Flash Honey, a photojournalist who uses her camera’s flash to blind her enemies; Fancy Honey, a model; and Cutie Honey, a warrior who uses a sword to vanquish her foes.
Shin Cutey Honey Trailers
9. Alps no Shoujo Heidi
- Episodes: 52
- Aired: January 6, 1974 – December 29, 1974
Heidi draws its inspiration from the original writings of Swiss writer Johanna Spyri called Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning from 1880 and is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s first projects when he was a young man breaking into the industry. The series is beloved by all and features classic folk tales from the western world, something relatively new to the anime scene.
After Heidi’s parents died, her Aunt Dette becomes her guardian for five years until she is offered a job in the city. As a guardian, Dette cannot possibly take the position so she ships Heidi off to her one other remaining relative, her grandfather who has a reputation for being quite rough around the edges. It is even rumored that he may have killed a man. As a result, he has lived his life in isolation in the Swiss Alps with only his dog, Josef, for company.
Despite his tough exterior, he warms up to Heidi’s adventurous spirit. Everything works out and Heidi spends her days playing with the goat herder Peter up in the mountains, forgoing school. Heidi continues to grow in the Alps until she undergoes another abrupt change as her aunt drags her to Frankfurt to become a companion to a rich, crippled girl. Heidi and the girl, Clara, become fast friends, but Heidi succumbs to homesickness and is sent back to her grandfather.
Heidi, Girl of the Alps Japanese intro HD 1080p remaster
8. Mazinger Z
- Episodes: 92
- Aired: December 3, 1972 – December 1, 1974
Based on the popular manga with the same name, Mazinger Z is the quintessential giant robot anime of the time. It has inspired many sequels and spinoff stories throughout the years and even has all ninety-two episodes dubbed in Spanish due to high demand in Mexico. While the original series ended before the airing of the anime, a second manga was created to air simultaneously with the chapters released by the manga in Weekly Shounen Jump.
The series pioneered the great boom in mecha anime and is the founder of many tropes found in today’s mecha series including having a pilot for the robot inside a cockpit usually in the head area. In fact, Guillermo del Toro admits that Mazinger Z served as a great influence for his film Pacific Rim.
The series focuses on the giant robot, Mazinger Z, created after Professor Juzu Kabuto stumbled upon the great Mycene Empire who used giant, metal titans to defeat their enemies. Kabuto’s employer, Dr. Hell, goes mad with power and murders all of the scientists in his labs besides Kabuto who manages to escape and create the Mazinger Z to protect the world against Dr. Hell’s newly made robot army. Piloted by the obnoxious and crass grandson of Professor Kobuto, Kouji. Together, the battle numerous robotic henchmen of Dr. Hell as well as other giants bent on harming the world.
Mazinger Z opening 1 Japones - Mazinger Z is open 1
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: April 1, 1973 -September 30, 1973 Shin-Ei Animation
Considered the unofficial “Ambassador of Japan”, Doraemon’s cultural impact is quite large. Kids from all over recognize the blue, robotic cat and the misadventures he has with his human companion. Doraemon’s legacy runs deep as both the show and the anime have received countless awards over time including the first ever Osamu Tezuka Award for the manga. Time even awarded Doraemon as the only animated character on its list of Asian Heroes.
Sewashi Nobi suffers greatly from his grandfather’s mistakes. He struggles with money and constantly wishes there were something he could do to change his fortune, but the only way to do so would be to fix the past. Struck with an idea, Sewashi decides to send a robot back in time to protect his grandfather from ruining his future business and burdening his future family with debt. While the idea sounds grand, Sewashi can only afford a toy cat, and so he sends Doraemon back in time to save his grandpa from misfortune.
Doraemon Theme Song (1973)
6. Rose of Versailles
- Episodes: 40
- Aired: October 10, 1979 – September 3, 1980
As one of the most well-known shoujo series in Japan, Rose of Versailles still remains one of the most popular franchises of all time. The series is well known for its elements of yuri since Oscar is constantly fawned upon by women of the court and the historical aspects of the series have led it to be used as a teaching tool in schools all over the world. The series is also credited to creating a stepping stone to more serious and complex stories aimed at an older audience in the shoujo genre.
Born a woman and raised as a man, Oscar learned to fight while she was quite young. Her skills garnered the attention of the royal guard of France and so she is charged with becoming the personal bodyguard of the Queen, Marie Antoinette, and her family. Throughout the series, France begins to change and Oscar has a front row seat. Oscar begins to question her loyalties once she begins to hear the cry of the poor who, rightfully, blame the Queen and thus begins the French Revolution.
Theme Song: Rose of Versailles HOT CLIP
5. Space Battleship Yamato (Uchu Senkan Yamato)
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: October 6, 1974 – March 30, 1975 Academy Productions
If it weren’t for Yamato, the world may have never seen the Evangelion franchise come to fruition since Hideaki Anno frequently cites the Yamato series the reason he became interested in the anime business. Same goes for the Gundam series and many others whose creators grew up watching Yamato.
The series is originally loosely based on the book Lord of the Flies, but Leiji Matsumoto quickly put an end to that. Instead, the story features the old World War II battleship, Yamato, which has been transformed into a spacecraft capable of entering deep space and crushing alien enemies. The ship and its crew are in search of a device that can rid the Earth’s surface of radiation, the result of meteorite bombs sent by an alien race. The crew has one year to find the mysterious device before the human species becomes extinct.
Uchuu Senkan Yamato Opening
4. Galaxy Express 999 (Ginga Tetsudo Suri Nain)
- Episodes: 113
- Aired: September 14, 1978 – April 9, 1981 Toei Animation
In a land where mechanical bodies reign supreme, those who are unfortunate enough to remain human are banished to the slums and hunted for sport. Such was the case for Tetsuro and his mother. During a snowstorm, they were spotted and hunted. Though Tetsuro survived, his mother did not and so Tetsuro, fraught with grief, succumbed to the cold. Unbeknownst to him, a lucky passerby whisked him away to safety and offered him freedom in the form of a ticket. A ticket for the Galaxy Express 999, a space train whose final destination is a planet said to give away free mechanical bodies. The young woman who rescued him, Maetel, accompanies Tetsuro across many different galaxies and planets that suffer equally horrific crimes.
Galaxy Express 999 -Op-
3. Lupin III
- Episodes: 23
- Aired: October 24, 1971 – March 26, 1972
The character Lupin III was created when Monkey Punch read the early thief novels of Maurice Leblanc about Arsene Lupin. Lupin III is meant to be the grandson of Leblanc’s character who decides to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. Lupin’s main rival/adversary is ICPO officer Koichi Zenigata, who is meant to be the descendant of the famous fictional detective Heiji Zenigata. With famous relatives, the expectations are high for adventure.
Lupin usually has some help in his heists thanks to Jigen, Goemon, and Fujiko. The four round each other out as each has their own special skills. Jigen is the sharpshooter of the group, Goemon is a skilled swordsman, and Fujiko is the master of deception. Though usually Lupin works in a team with just Jigen and himself, the other two often show up if only to steal the final prize. More often than not, Fujiko backstabs Lupin, but is always forgiven.
Lupin III - 2nd Series - 1st Opening Sequence
2. Astro Boy
- Episodes: 193
- Aired: January 1, 1963 – December 31, 1966
Astro Boy is the godfather of anime quite literally. When it aired in the sixties, there was nothing like it and it became a critical success that pioneered a whole new generation of animation in Japan. The anime envisioned a new, technologically advanced world that was only a dream to Japan at the time. Many little boys and girls grew up watching Astro Boy and may have even been influenced to pursue careers in science and technology thanks to this anime.
Atom is a young android boy created by Dr. Tenma who works for the Ministry of Science in order to replace his dead son who died in a tragic car accident. No matter how Atom tries, he can never completely erase the sadness in Tenma’s heart. Atom is not human so he will never age and has a hard time looking human. Tenma eventually sells Atom to the circus until he is lucky enough to be picked up by the new head of the Ministry of Science, Dr. Ochanomizu, who cares for him as his own. Eventually Ochanomizu discovers Atom’s power and directs him to use his skills for good.
Astro Boy (1963) - Trailer
1. Mobile Suit Gundam
- Episodes: 43
- Aired: April 7, 1979 – January 26, 1980 Nippon Sunrise
Here it is. The series that started a phenomenon that is still taking Japan by storm. Although the series’ initial ratings weren’t fantastic, the Gunpla models that followed helped boost the anime’s popularity quite a bit. Gundam created changed the robot genre by creating a more serious plot with more ordinary characters that fans could more closely relate to.
This very first series begins in the year 2079 during the One Year War between Zeon and the Earth Federation. Zeon wishes to break from the Earth Federation and so starts a civil war by using their newly created mechas called mobile suits. A large chunk of humanity is wiped out once the war begins to slow. When the Earth Federation attempts to pick up a secret weapon from a military base, but are followed by Zeon who botch the operation. As a result, the new weapon, a gundam, is discovered by a young boy who decides to put an end to the fighting himself. He fights off enemy forces despite the heavy casualties. The only people left are civilians. Together, they decide to take control of the base and fight for themselves.
Mobile Suit Gundam - Opening
Everyone needs to take the time to watch these classics. The animation is hand drawn and the sound quality may be hard to swallow for those used to action scenes in CG and gorgeously detailed backgrounds, the stories are still quite solid and stand the test of time. Most of these series are available through various streaming services such as Crunchyroll (Galaxy Express 999, Astro Boy, Lupin III) so there really is no excuse not to thank your elders!
For those interested watching more older series (It was hard to choose only ten!), here is a list of honorable mentions that may be of interest:
Kimba the White Lion
What are your favorite series from the 60s - 70s? Let us know in the comments below!