When Did Beach Episodes Become an Anime Tradition?

Maho Girls Precure! (episode 25)

Maho Girls Precure! (episode 25)

Though summer may have already come and gone this year, the (in?)famous tradition of the anime beach episode is something we can probably talk about year-round, considering that it’s something of an annual tradition in Japanese media.

While its existence is something we all kind of take for granted now, it’s sometimes worthwhile to stop and take a look back at the history of the medium and ask why things are the way they are, and how we got here. Why, for example, do we have anime beach episodes? And when did they start?

These are the questions I’ll be taking a look at today. I hope you join along!

Even Pokemon got in on it

Even Pokemon got in on it

As with most other questions I take a look at on this and other blogs of mine, it’s always important to establish a few baselines so we all know that we’re talking about the same thing. And what better of a question to ask than: Just what exactly is a “beach episode” anyway?

Known in Japan as a 水着回 (mizugi kai; swimsuit episode),1 we know it in the west by this slightly more diplomatic name. As for what it is, TVTrope, a site I’m sure you all are very familiar with, summarizes it quite well:2

The Beach Episode or Pool Episode is, simply put, an episode where the cast decided to take a break and go to the beach or a swimming pool for some wet and splashy fun.

But while I find this definition pretty helpful in at least getting us in the same chapter, I think we still have a little ways to go before we’re all on the same page.

Why is that? Well, frankly, we haven’t set any ground rules on what a beach episode isn’t.

Yep, even guys can get in on it! (Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru; ep 7)

Yep, even guys can get in on it! (Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru; ep 7)

As silly as I’m sure that sounds, it’s actually quite important to know what doesn’t count before we can actually start making assertions about the past or present. And as it turns out, the history of our infamous beach episode here makes that a little more complex you’d imagine.

In my research here, I applied the following ground rules (and my reasoning therefor will follow):

  1. Just being on a beach doesn’t count
  2. “Fan-service” alone isn’t enough to trigger the “beach episode” threshold
  3. It has to be an anime tv series

The first rule seems painfully obvious on the surface, but when you’re a pedantic person like myself, it’s really important to point out. While it may feel obvious to you, dear reader, that something is, or is not, what would fall under the label of a “beach episode,” it becomes challenging to actually lock down any concrete information without drawing this line in the sand – pun very much intended.

Beach? Yes. Beach Episode? No (Gundam, ep 15)

Beach? Yes. Beach Episode? No (Gundam, ep 15)

For example, in episode 15 of the original Mobile Suit Gundam, our heroes wind up going to a small island in the Pacific to investigate the source of a distress signal. Though this episode aired on July 14, 19793 and takes place nearly entirely on a beach, it is a pretty poor candidate as the source we’re looking for since, you know, it’s just a bunch of robots fighting.

Rule number two is incredibly important because, frankly, anime as a medium is full of fan-service scenes for the audience, and it always has been. Whether we’re talking about Maetel’s shower scenes in Galaxy Express 999, Shizuka’s frequent bath scenes in Doraemon, or the non-stop nudity during transformation scenes in Cutie Honey, fan-service has been a part of anime from at least the early 70s.

Maetel was not a fan of clothes (Galaxy Express 999)

Maetel was not a fan of clothes (Galaxy Express 999)

I think that you could probably make a great argument that this type of fan-service is the precursor to the modern-day beach episode – and I don’t think you’d be entirely wrong – but it kind of misses the point of the question we’re here to answer if you’re willing to go to that level of abstraction. Once we go down that road, we might as well talk about the history of bathing suits, too.

And what about the third rule? Well, this one is a bit fuzzier, but the general idea is that all bets are generally off when it comes to OVA releases and movies, so I don’t think it’d be fair to consider a direct-to-video release or beach scene in a movie as the source here.

Similarly, there was a long-standing tradition of having summer-themed manga covers or full-color artwork included in weekly/monthly manga magazines prominently featuring the (generally female) cast in swimwear, but this is more a sign of the season and less to do with what we’re looking for.

Now that we got all that out of the way, we can finally take a look at where the beach episode tradition got its start.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, the tradition really fully-entrenched itself itself in the medium in the early-90s and has been a staple ever since. Personally, I think this is probably attributable to the rise in popularity of the romantic-comedy genre of anime and the subsequent evolution into the so-called harem genre4 of anime. However, without doing a lot more research, I can’t really say anything beyond an educated guess.

So who did it first?

Urusei Yatsura (ep 123)

Urusei Yatsura (ep 123)

Well, the earliest example I can find of what we would consider a modern-day beach episode is in Rumiko Takahashi’s5 romantic-comedy series, Urusei Yatsura. Airing on August 22, 1984, “Ryunosuke Stunned! My Young Child Loves Rock Mother!!” (episode 123)6 checks all the necessary boxes and – though this is pretty typical for the series – covers all of the fan-service angles as well.

The next time I was able to find a relevant episode was in – SURPRISE! – another romantic-comedy series by Rumiko Takahashi, Maison Ikkoku. A rather flimsy excuse is made to get the characters to the beach in the creatively-titled episode “Love Panic on the Beach!” (episode 10, aired May 28, 1986)7 and, once again, we find our cast in bathing suits and engaging in beach-y merriment.

It's as classy as you imagine (Nadia, ep 12)

It’s as classy as you imagine (Nadia, ep 12)

Once we hit 1990, the tradition seemed to be in full swing. Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water – an anime about ocean-faring exploits already – managed to find a way to squeeze in a beach episode under the guise of going ashore for supplies in “Grandis and Her First Love” (episode 12, aired July 6, 1990)8 and so did Patlabor in “Shore Watch Out Order” (episode 40, aired August 8, 1990).9

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, and there were almost certainly more that I’m sure I missed in the years after Urusei Yatsura, these were some of the most popular anime at the time. Or, should I say, the anime on TV with the most popular female leads.10 After 1990, many of the popular anime I checked on had a relevant beach-themed episode and it seems like the tradition was pretty well established at that point. By 1992, even Animage refers to the upcoming beach episodes for the season as something long-awaited by fans.11

"What a Haul!" – Happosai

“What a Haul!” – Happosai

So there you have it, all you never wanted to know and more about the history of beach episodes in Japanese anime!

Next up, I have a few more ideas focused less directly on anime and more about the Japanese fandom surrounding it – more specifically, doujinshi artists – but if there are any questions you have, I’d love to hear from you!


References:

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