If you were like me growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, anime wasn’t exactly near the height of popularity in South Africa. This may have been due to our limited selection of anime that aired across SABC 2 and K-TV, but for many, they were gateway points into the medium most fans still cherish today. Of course, over time our exposure to anime in the country grew. While we didn’t have Toonami, another channel called Animax boldly stepped up to the occasion, if only for a short while. Thanks to Animax, I wouldn’t have gotten into shows such as Bleach, Black Lagoon and *ahem* Elfen Lied.
The anime that have come to define our childhoods on this list all play a part in that nostalgic buzz we feel every time we hear their theme songs, fondly taking us back to simpler times when we bought crisps in the truckloads; not just for the actual crisps, but mainly for the tazo’s and hidden treasures inside. From pocket monsters to… more monsters, here’s seven anime that defined South African childhoods.
The one thing I’ll always take away from growing up and watching Pokemon is the strange time slots. Before Pokemon aired around the 4pm slot, The Days of Our Lives dominated households for the previous hour, which lead to me eagerly anticipating the anime by powering through the drama series with my grandmother – and finding myself hooked after a while, but that’s besides the point (That Sami and Lucas subplot, though. Wow).
For many fans, both nationally and internationally, Pokemon was their gateway anime, even if they didn’t realize it was actually an anime. To this day, it has such a monumental impact on pop culture, you wouldn’t travel a mile without finding someone who doesn’t know that lovable electric rodent, Pikachu, or Ash Ketchum’s resolve to be the “very best like no one ever was”. Nintendo’s landmark property still tugs at our heartstrings, and you couldn’t ask for a better nostalgic television show.
It’s not hard to see how Yu-Gi-Oh! came to be following the unprecedented success of Pokemon. However, Yu-Gi-Oh! put a slightly different spin on monster battles by having them exist only as creatures in a card deck, brought to life in battle as holograms… more or less. While Pokemon dabbled in card games outside of the video games and anime, it never really reached the peak of popularity that Yu-Gi-Oh!’s trading card game did.
In the early-to-mid 2000s, Yu-Gi-Oh! exploded in South Africa and caused quite a new, ultra-cool sensation. This was mostly thanks to its more mature representation of monsters and intricate strategies involved in the card game that was absurdly addictive to play. It all started with the surprisingly decent anime which succeeded Pokemon in all the right ways, although the series has tragically aged poorly since then. At least we have that catchy opening to remember it by.
So at some point, we decided card games and tazo’s weren’t quite good enough for us fidgety prepubescent anime fans. We craved something with a little more substance and weight (quite literally). Along came Beyblade, Madhouse Studios attempt to capitalize on the growing gimmick-infused trends that stemmed from popular anime shows. Beyblade took the idea of spinning tops and monster battles and created a weird amalgamation of the two.
Beyblade wasn’t exactly the best series to get into back then. Even by shounen standards, the anime seemed to go way over the top with its characters, battles, and “strategies” (keep in mind, this is still a series where kids battle each other using spinning tops). Soon after Beyblade became the next trend-setter, the toys were quick to sell, mimicking the designs of the actual spinning tops in the series. I remember owning my own Beyblade as a kid and proudly beating my chest in the playground as challengers stepped up to get destroyed. It may have lasted all of two months before marbles became a thing, but we did get some fine, mindless fun out of it.
I’m not ashamed to admit that Hamtaro influenced me as a young aspiring artist/writer and many others who were drawn to the off-kilter, quirky nature of the anime. It revolved around a group of adorable hamsters struggling with the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Oddly enough, it packed more profound coming of age themes and messages than most other anime on this list, yet somehow failed to appeal to the more conventional, die-hard fans of cute, talking animals at the time.
Hamtaro was the nostalgic underdog of our youth that sadly had little staying power once the next big saga of Dragon Ball Z kicked off, but luckily it has developed somewhat of a cult following over the years. I’d probably introduce my own kids to this show about bilingual hamsters one day, but with shows as enticing as Dragon Ball Z and the next entry on this list, it’s hard to justify why it would be a worthy investment of their time.
Digimon didn’t make rounds on any of the SABC channels or E-TV, so it might’ve prematurely slipped under the radar while Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! dominated the time slots. However, K-TV’s weekend morning catch-ups certainly kept a lot of people invested in Digimon: Digital Monsters, Pokemon’s biggest rival and rift in the anime community before the big 3 arrived on the scene.
Having rewatched Digimon seasons 1-4 last year, not only does it still hold up well today, but in its own right, it’s an absolutely phenomenal show. This is especially true for season 3, Digimon Tamers, which touched upon some devastating and mature themes while holding no punches back with violence and dark tones. It’s the kind of anime that deserves revisiting after many years to really grasp all the finer details that we didn’t really pick up on as kids.
Naruto + Naruto: Shippuden
Arguably the last anime in the great nostalgic era, Naruto bridged the gap between what was readily available to us via TV and what we had to willingly go out and search for after Animax opened up a new world of possibilities. Naruto’s immediate success was thanks to how relatable the titular character was. As children, most of us could relate to being loud attention-seekers and troublesome brats with a cause. Naruto’s plight to have recognition from his peers was a direct reflection for many of our own struggles in society.
Naruto: Shippuden came along and threw most of those brilliant adolescent themes out the window after deciding it wanted to be like Dragon Ball Z, but the impact still remained. Naruto’s creator, Masashi Kishimoto, crafted one hell of a life lesson on the importance of friendship, belonging and going against insurmountable odds to better yourself. Plus, all that crazy ninja stuff was (and still is) one of the coolest things ever.
Dragon Ball Z
When fans reflect on anime that had the biggest impact on their lives growing up, especially in South Africa, they need look no further than the grand-daddy of nostalgia, Dragon Ball Z. I realized the hype for this show was so enormous, it had some of my extended family, including uncles and aunts, watching it on a daily basis. I’d go to school the next day and put aside my crushing social anxiety around girls to converse with them about the latest episodes. I was even on friendly terms with my science teacher who viewed Piccolo as his idol.
Whether it was the goofy but awesome characters or the explosive, physics-defying action that blew our little minds, everything about Dragon Ball Z made us glad to be fans of this new, rising form of animation that boldly separated itself from the usual Boomerang selection of cartoons. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was part of an anime community that was within arms reach. It may be easy to find like-minded individuals who share the same enthusiasm for anime as you today, but back then, Dragon Ball Z was one of the first major players in creating a global anime fandom.
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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