Animation, like so many other forms of media, flourished in the 1980s. There were some incredibly talented animators and directors at the time, many of whom are still recognized today for their work in television and film adaptations.
Looking back at the best shows of the past is a wonderful way to explore what may be resurrected for today’s audiences. Amazing animation and compelling stories have kept some shows relevant for decades.
By Mark Sammut, updated on December 7th, 2021: Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and YuYu Hakusho are among the most popular examples of “classic” anime. ’80s anime tends to be overlooked since it can be difficult to locate and, in some cases, employs animation that is too antiquated. For non-Japanese audiences, anime’s ’80s output doesn’t retain nearly as much sentimental value because it didn’t start making its way across the Pacific until the late ’90s. The 1980s were not without its highlights, though, and this list has been updated to include even more of the best anime from that decade.
1. Igano Kabamaru
Igano Kabamaru was raised by his strict grandfather as a ninja, so he has no idea what life is like outside of the mountains. When he suddenly finds himself in Tokyo, he has a culture shock. Igano Kabamaru, a charmingly stupid and a lot of fun anime, is defined by puppy love, rival schools, and fish out of water humor.
It’s not just the animation that makes Igano Kabamaru feel stale; its idea and characters are also rather simple. The anime, on the other hand, does a good job with the shonen conventions.
2. Saint Seiya: Knights Of The Zodiac
Saint Seiya is possibly the most popular ’80s anime outside of Dragon Ball since it was able to cross over from Japan to the West. Saint Seiya, a manga based on Greek mythology, tells the story of a group of teenagers who are granted magical powers in order to defend Athena and battle other deities.
When compared to other anime from the same time period, Saint Seiya’s action sequences are lightning fast. One of the best anime of the ’80s is a combination of excellent animation, basic yet powerful plot, and an enormous music.
3. Gunbuster (Top Wo Nerae! Gunbuster)
Gunbuster, a six-episode OVA series, is a fantastic mecha anime that has remained relevant throughout the years. Even while the animation in Gainax is a cut above the average for the 1980s, it’s the show’s characters that really make it stand out. Noriko Takaya, the protagonist character in Gunbuster, is a heartwarming and likable character.
In between epic mecha battles, Gunbuster devotes its time to developing the characters of its pilots and antagonists. Even more so than most comedies, this one maintains a steady level of hilarity throughout.
4. Sherlock Hound (Meitantei Holmes)
Hayao Miyazaki, the celebrated director of many Company Ghibli films, collaborated with the animation studio that created the original Animaniacs program to create this informal version of Sherlock Holmes stories. For fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective work and zany shenanigans, this is a must-see.
Because it is available for free on YouTube, a large number of anime lovers continue to watch it even if it is no longer produced.
5. Silver Fang (Ginga Nagareboshi Gin)
Silver Fang was a tougher-themed anime focusing on anthropomorphic animals before the emergence of series like Beastars. The plot thickens as we follow Gin as he marshals a canine army against the dreaded Akakabuto.
Ginga Nagareboshi is the author of this work. Tomoharu Katsumata, the guy behind such great ’80s anime as Captain Future, Mazinger Z, and UFO Robo Grendizer, helmed the film’s direction.
6. Dragon Ball & Dragon Ball Z
The influence of Dragon Ball on anime as a whole cannot be understated. After their first releases in Asia, both Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon were well-received in the West.
Dr. Slump & Arale-Chan and other works by Akira Toriyama were hugely popular in the 1980s. To top it all off, the protagonist Arale appeared in an episode of Dragon Ball Z, making for an endearingly funny fictional crossover.
7. Fist Of The North Star (Hokuto No Ken)
“It’s too late for you.” There are many funny memes about Fist of the North Star now, but it was a huge hit in the 1980s. In spite of its gruesome and violent nature, this martial arts-based post-apocalyptic epic has a beautiful plot of overcoming incredible odds to protect the things he cares about.
From the Hokuto Hyakuretsu-ken strike in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure to several parodies of it in Gintama, Fist of the North Star’s influence on anime can still be felt today.
8. City Hunter (シティーハンター)
At its peak, City Hunter was a hugely popular show in the 1980s, with three successful seasons and numerous film adaptations. The drama follows a mercenary organization known as City Hunter as they deal with the dangers of their profession. There are plenty of humorous moments for fans to enjoy, despite the heavy emphasis on action and drama.
9. Touch (タッチ)
For all its simplicity, the story of growing up and finding one’s place in the world in Touch is deeply moving. Tatsuya, Kazuya, and Minami form a love triangle that will ring true for anybody who has ever experienced the highs and lows of being a young person in love.
Things take a dramatic turn in the midst of the show. We don’t want to give anything away, but we can assure you that Touch, despite its age of more than three decades, is still worth viewing.
10. Macross (Choujikuu Yousai Macross)
When the human race realizes it is no longer alone, what happens next? Unknown spacecraft crash-lands on Earth, and the United Nations decides to use it as a weapon to defend our planet. After a tragic event occurs on the ship’s maiden journey, the crew is whisked away to the furthest reaches of space.
Macross, which first aired in the 1980s, continues to receive sequels today, with Macross Frontier debuted in 2008 and Macross Delta released in 2016. If you’re interested in seeing where the story began for the new series, start with the original.
11. Ranma ½ (Ranma ½ Nettou Hen)
Ranma 12 tells the story of a boy named Ranma, who is cursed to turn into a lady everytime he gets wet. Ranma’s shenanigans are made even funnier when he is transformed back into a boy by the warm water. To this day, queer anime fans hold this show in high respect for its exploration of gender fluidity and the deconstruction of traditional gender stereotypes.
12. Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam
Even after 39 episodes, it’s hard to believe that the original Mobile Suit Gundam was given a successor. However, it wasn’t until the mid-80s that the supporters were ready for more. Many of the original Gundam show cliches are present in Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, paving the way for the series’ full potential in the future.
13. Tomorrow’s Joe 2 (Ashita No Joe 2)
The importance of Ashita no Joe manga by Asao Takamori cannot be overestimated. Throughout Joe Yabuki’s life, there has been drama, tragedy, life lessons, unbeatable highs and heartbreaking lows, all of which have shaped him into the world’s greatest boxer. A 1970 anime series based on the manga aired for a total of 79 episodes. Joe returned for a second season about a decade later, and this time it’s a lot better than the first.
Every aspect of Ashita no Joe 2 is ageless, from the characters to the plot. Ashita no Joe 2’s themes are general enough that it does not require a lover of boxing to enjoy it.
14. Ikkoku House (Maison Ikkoku)
Slice-of-life anime like Maison Ikkoku, one of the best ever made, has had a lasting impact on the medium. The plot revolves around Yuusaku’s romance with Kyoko, the new in-house manager of his boarding house. Yuusaku’s oddball tenants add a lot of fun to the show’s cheerful atmosphere.