While anime as a medium is often hard to categorically summarize or define, the shows and films that have made anime what it is in the 21st century are easily identifiable. Beyond just mere popularity and rabid otaku adoration, the anime on this list have birthed entire genres, sub-genres, tropes, and character archetypes. They have facilitated technical innovations, created lasting cultural legacies, significantly advanced or redefined the medium, and spread the gospel of anime to generations of fans around the world.
Before all the top '80s and '90s anime came shows like Astro Boy and Sally the Witch, which played historically important roles in shaping the anime art style and creating the "magical girl" genre. Action-packed shows like Dragon Ball and deep, thought-provoking films like Akira paved the way for some of the best anime series that all fans recognize. Check out this list of TV shows and movies that historically advanced and revolutionized anime into the mainstream media it has become since the turn of the century.
- Photo: Toei Animation
Originally aired in black and white between 1966 and 1967 in Japan, Sally the Witch is another formative addition to the shoujo genre. It is regarded today as being the first ever "magical girl" anime.
Sally is the princess witch of the Magical Kingdom who teleports to Earth after longing for friends her own age. She starts using her unique powers to fight evil for the greater good. This basic plot line has come to be the established formula for most magical girl stories, from Himitsi no Akko-chan, Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Pretty Cure.
- Photo: Fuji Television
Unless you've spent significant time perusing the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records or you grew up in Japan, the chances are you will be completely unfamiliar with Sazae-san. What's record-breaking about it? Well, it's been on air since 1969 in Japan and is still airing! With over 7,000 episodes and counting under its belt, Sazae-san is the longest running animated TV show of all time, and remains one of the biggest ratings pullers in Japan.
Sazae-san depicts the ordinary life of titular wife and mother, Sazae Fugata, and her family. It's probably the earliest and most historically important example of the "slice of life" genre in anime.
- Photo: TMS Entertainment
Based on the sports manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Noboru Kawasaki, Star of the Giants is attributed as the very first sports anime to air in Japan. Initially broadcast in 1968, the series' popularity spawned numerous film adaptations and sequel series, the most recent of which was released in 1982.
Star of the Giants features a story around baseball, and the featured team was actually based on a real-life Japanese one called the Yomiuri Giants. Though sports anime like Captain Tsubasa, Slam Dunk, and Hajime no Ippo helped develop the genre further, Star of the Giants was hugely important in establishing it.
- Photo: Eiken
Better known in the US as Gigantor, this series first aired in Japan between 1963 and 1965. It is based on the manga of the same name by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, who also created Giant Robo. Tetsujin is historically notable as being one of the first - if not the first - shows to feature a giant robot with a human pilot, a staple feature in anime that would come to be called "humongous robot."
The show focuses on the adventures of a boy named Shotaro Kaneda, whose late father left him in the possession of giant robot that he could control remotely. These types of robots would later fall under the umbrella of "mecha," a genre featuring robots of varyingly large sizes that can be controlled, piloted, or worn as exoskeletons by humans.