Embracing The Fear: The End Of An Industry


Ready for something truly scary?

For a long time, I had been formulating thoughts on the state of the industry, as well as what is possible within the framework of what has been the home of not only people I regard, respect, and am friends with in many ways. And have come to the conclusion that a lot of what I happen to gripe about on these pages, and outside of it stem from problems that run far deeper than fan expectation(although it is definitely partially to blame), and more pervasive than a lack of a major anime milestone to enrapture an entirely new generation of fans. I speak of a greater source of much of the pain, power, and passion that fuels anime’s current woes; the anime machine itself. So when my Twitter feed is doing it’s best to funnel out much of what current output is failing to engage. Or when I spend more time articulating on shows from decades past, this is largely a central culprit for it. The more time one spends looking at how this cultural export has continued to be run despite dramatic changes happening throughout the entertainment world, it’s no wonder how cynical, note-heavy, and ultimately unengaging many shows have been over the last few years.

 

Which isn’t to say that we haven’t had a number of shining lights amongst the carrion so many regard with fleeting interest once a season ends.  This year alone we have experienced surprises like Madoka Magika, Tiger & Bunny, as well as the absorbing sweetness of Usagi Drop. But the ever present spectre of the late 2000s moe movement continues to haunt the majority of animated product, even as the Fall season kicks into gear. As of this writing, I have counted off quite a few shows featuring yet another cast of young girls, ready to dish out another several weeks worth of high school hijinks. How many of these shows will cordon off one episode for a hot springs/beachside adventure? Thankfully, there have been a few titles to have avoided this trap, and while this makes the enthusiast in me grateful, there still is a large amount of product, unwilling to adopt anything new in fear of further loss of revenue. But when this happens, especially in lieu of global economic and technological change, where is there left to go but an already overcrowded sanctuary?

 

Again, this isn’t to say that this industry has been free from this manner of corporate wringing, unoriginality, and fearmongering. Keep in mind who were largely driving anime production in the 70s through the 1980s. When Tomino initially had planned for his soon-to-be-revolutionary MS Gundam models to be dark colored, it was the toy companies who insited on the white, blue, red and yellow many of us are familiar with. It was also this drive which led the franchise which almost never was (the series was cancelled and considered a failure) to become one of if not THE name to keep Studio Sunrise on the map for this long. Each era essentially paying lip service to whatever deep-seated enthusiasm or fetish the public is harboring at the time has long been the anime on TV tradition. And while it can make for some truly memorable television, it also shines a light upon interests who tend to see a lot more money than the actual talent and labor that went into the making of such creations that offer such joy and thought. When all the money from viewers, meaning those out to purchase products from video releases, memorabilia, and character goods is exhausted, it is very often the creative staff that gets the short end of the stick, leaving them no choice but to produce less work that is indicative of their interests, let alone talents.
And keep in mind that there is no support system in place such as a guild, or even a union to protect, and assist this artistic endeavor in any equitable manner. This leads to a disparity in how the funds are actually distributed, and is no wonder the gaming industry becomes a much more viable option. And while the Japanese gaming industry is experiencing its very own set of problems, this only magnifies the problems plaguing matters here.

 

So let’s break it down, Diet-style..

What we have been seeing over the last several seasons..

 

1) An increased number of shows. Shorter seasons.

This may not be as severe as in previous years, but it has become the norm in many ways. We practically expect it as production value has been higher than ever since roughly 2004.

 

2) Less studios competing.

There’s no avoiding the reality that anime studios are closing down in dangerous numbers. It is actually frightening the sheer number of in-between houses that are no longer in operation. Even many well-respected houses are beginning to look worried. In a post-quake Japan, this is only gaining more prominence.

 

3)More outsourced talent.

Just watch a random recent show, and give the credits a good read. Pretty self-explanatory.

 

4)Less risks taken. More studio conformity to cater to the last paying clientele..

Usually against the grain producers, noItamina plans to produce a Black Rock Shooter anime. When even they have to cop an Akiba-centric series, the writing is pretty much burned on the wall.

 

5)More Japan-centric productions. Dwindled interest in a global market.
(In many ways an addendum to 5.) In previous years, there was some vetted interest in creating works designed with a general audience in mind. And despite the medium’s tendency to lean toward insular tendencies, there was a sense that anime production could come out of previous shells, and offer works more geared toward a larger market. In the last few years alone, this has almost been completely relegated to straight-to-video treatments of western properties, or commercial anomalies. There was a time when anime would take more effort to explore the world. But as commercial markets continue to mutate into wholly different creatures, the driving force has been to close off (And perhaps only look to compete with China and Korea), when doing so would be the worst thing imaginable.

 

While some otaku may see this:

Others see THIS:

There is almost an old-fashioned notion at work here. By closing off, ignoring the call of progress, and allowing the death of anime to go on unabated. It is as if they hope to land the plane, despite the wounds suffered in battle, only to die quietly in the cockpit. But in doing so, the livelihood of many continue to be compromised, and only serves to bolder the thinking of a select few who wish to go down with the ship, as opposed to nurturing a future. And in an art form that has always had potential for breaking down barriers, and offering a singularly unique window into the human experience, this simply makes no sense. Ironic, considering anime and it’s timeless penchant for the irrational. And even so, much of what makes Japanese animation so important to many of us is at risk because of a select few, uninterested, and unwilling to look at the system and see that it requires a shakedown from the bottom up.  As if denial ever led to positive returns. The elephant in the room simply is that change is not only required, but inevitable in regards to not only commerce, but art itself.

 

 

In fact, looking at the history of anime’s rise and fall in the US is an even greater set of revelations set to illustrate this point. In the years post-Evangelion & Pokemon, many (myself included) felt as if a victory of sorts had somehow finally come to pass. The idea that what was once a coveted vice of mostly males with friends and family overseas could ever be so widely accepted with full series releases, and near-capacity convention attendance numbers was unimaginable. It felt in many ways as if collective enthusiasm had finally helped the public accept what had long been either seen as inferior product, or sexually violent drivel. But the reality behind the success is something potentially more troubling when one considers a majority of so-called anime blockbusters from the 1990s, were in fact considered risks, and ultimately financial failures. (There are reasons why even Shinichiro Watanabe can’t get a gig. Yes. That Watanabe. Unbelievable. ) IN fact, many of my personal favorites, including the universally-praised REDLINE also failed to gain an audience in its native country. Despite the money made from many of these works, rarely did it ever make enough for the japanese producers, keeping much of the interests convinced that only certain markets were considered viable, and therefore worthy of pandering to.

 

 

And the fact that many US-based anime companies were incrementally drowning themselves in debt as licensing fees led to endless sessions of bidding wars, half-cocked prognostication, and drama, the Japanese producers continued to treat it as though physical media (and it’s often questionable pricing scheme) would remain viable for decades to come, and that american fans would be willing to pay top dollar for less content, and more discs. The problems come when the quality of work, brought on by fear of change leads to diminished sales, leading to more low quality work, leading to less sales, etc. It is this model alone that bears continuous questioning. And if the Japanese do not take any sort of action to alter the game from the inside, this gangrene-infected self-inflicted gunshot wound will continue to bleed until there is nothing left. It isn’t so much honorable, so much as self-fulfilling.

 

The gist? I love anime as a medium. Not unconditionally. But I also see the promise of it, and the potential it has always had. But when those on the inside insist on allowing it to rot from the inside out by clinging on to what amounts to tropes (IE- a severe lack of ideas), one can only support as much as it can without ignoring personal taste. We do our part to support, but when there is little to nothing to support, what then? Well, one way is to seek out the rare and interesting that the majors are not carrying or advertising. (In manga, I often point to publishers like Vertical for bringing out many classics that deserve a look, among others) Another way is to simply support the select few with your money. Let them know how grateful you are that they connected with you in some way. One of the great victories on the internet is the simple ability to actually connect. There are less excuses than ever to get involved. And while a disconnect still exists, and this post seems dead against the anime industry in its staid form, making sure that both the Japan and US arms know that it isn’t a glut of unnecessary product we want, but quality and equality between creator and consumer, perhaps change will be possible in a way that isn’t negative.

 

On the other hand, another side effect of all of this is a possible revolution from outside the industry. It could very well be that this atrophy could very well spark fans from all over to help create something more grassroots, and less in service of networks, and soulless business interest. Personally, I would love to see where all this user-generated content model leads to. It is perhaps here, along with imaginations, the requisite hard work and guts, may we be able to grant anime new life. But in the meantime, the deflating circus tent continues..

 

I love the industry, as in many of the people involved in the creative community of it. But something has to give in order for any of it to live past this very transitional time.

 

Even as it seems that puzzle-based titles seem to be the next niche to be plundered by the industry, how long will that take before the fickle public wanders away yet again, only to leave the remaining producers/business interests gasping for respite for yet another serving of crumbs? Having been an employee for multiple ventures, including the anime industry itself, it is important to share here the endless dogma inherent in models fearful of change. This is true of all sectors, not merely exclusive to anime. An awe inspiring spark of action is taking place in the US as these words continue to appear on my laptop, and it is clear that unless parties take it upon themselves to open up to a world re-wired, there is little left to hold onto except ad-hoc fantasies, and copycat relief. Streaming is far from enough. And of those in charge believe that merely streaming and physical sales will be enough, the changes to come can only spell a greater need for innovation and nurturing of those who create that which we enjoy. There is only so much of this one can take before the world comes knocking, and progress is waiting in the wings, ready to pluck out what remains of those unwilling to leave the larval stage.

22 thoughts on “Embracing The Fear: The End Of An Industry”

  1. I am just a crazy kid fighting to make it into the Japanese Animation industry. I recently graduated high school and am learning Japanese. What must be done in order to change the system? What can be done to revolutionize Anime in a way that will exsite fans and be economically sound? As fans of this medium, I believe it is our responsibility to some how rock the foundations of consistency that bind up this medium. I think we need to brain storm and implement a battle plan. Once again I ask, what should we do?

  2. Zeroe – Well the one thing I can assert here, is that fans have little to no power to do it save for not watching.

    What needs to change is essentially the entire financial, education, administrative system that has been in place for well over forty years as that is what is essentially bleeding it dry in a new media landscape.

  3. I get the feeling a lot of the stuff you’ve written reflects how you (and others) may feel, but I’m not sure it reflects the reality of the situation, at least from a factual perspective. Out of the 5 points you’ve listed I only counted 1 that is true, and that was #1, and it was true basically since 1999. I recommend you give Awesome Engine’s list of posts about late night TV anime a good read. Starting here:
    http://www.awesome-engine.com/2010/03/07/past-my-bedtime-part-i-introduction/

  4. So you haven’t seen the growing dearth of talent, the cribbing of diversity, and the lack of support on the side of animators. Again, this is speaking from experiencing actually witnessing the desperation grow in real time by companies afraid to cater to anyone else but a market more than willing to buy products? These are the facts. Facts that have kept the medium from any reasonable amount of growth. The link you shared is also more proof of where much of the interest lies..in the stations and networks who have their hands deep into the pockets of studios, again restricting the medium from reaching any potentially positive change.

    The sinking challenge of all of this is, if it all were changed from the bottom up, there is the chance that much of the more subconscious, rowdy nature of anime could be compromised as social progress seeps in. A large part of what allowed Japan’s dirty underbelly to receive a center stage treatment was largely due to the way it has been run. But change must come, dramatic change in fact if the medium is to experience a prolonged life. Because as it is, it is tantamount to begging. And there’s really nothing worse than begging.

    2-5 remain facts that plague the industry as it exists today, and as Japan claims to wish to use Cool Japan as a means to improve cultural import, the more the potential lies for anime to be vilified once again as a problem and not a solution. In other words, the government, as expected, imagines it all to be Miyazaki, when reality is far opposite..

  5. Addendum: Smith confirms much of what I have shared here – ” Basically the series have become much more like infomercials for the CD and DVD releases, not to mention all the ancillary character goods, than a show designed to attract a rating. And while “moe” makes money, that’s what’s going to dominate these slots, because the TV ratings really don’t mean anything. As soon as something else becomes what sells to a niche, fanatical audience, then Starchild’s roster of shows will become full of that (you can see some that happening to a lesser extent with their post-Eva catalogue in the 90s). ”

    Within the eye of the anime “bubble” I was also witness to how the merchandise would swing from one extreme to the other. By 2007, nearly 90% of the merchandise that was sent to us via Japan was either moe or ero-based, essentially ushering in the last gasps of hope the production companies were banking on to survive.

    In many ways, we can thank the international money brought on my US interest in the late 90s- early 2000s for giving anime a much-needed boost as it was flailing for its life by 1995. But the boost provided was only so strong, and once the internet came of age, this, coupled with splintering fandom largely due to a glut of material where noone person could catch every show, the producers have continued to produce more fan-geared material in order to reign in lost revenue. Again, something wildly reflected in the American licensing industry. Too much leads to not enough eyes, leading to a need for more lessened, cynical product, with little room for advancement by a generation of creators who feel safer with tropes, less likely to step up.

    And yes, the BRS news is also very true. Whatever late night programming once was, it is now in need of base ideas just to survive.

  6. The Jspanese economy has been falling since the bible burst in the nineties. The Uen is inflating at a drastic rate and the US Dollar is deflating. Japan has an aging population. They just experienced the worst natural disaster in their history. Japan’s society is on the edge. The political system is not working. Something will have to give soon. The animation industry is paying it’s animators on average about $1,200 US per month. This is barely enough to rent an appatment with in Tokyo. Animators are leaving animation for more pay in the video game industry. Most animation studios are being forced to outsource their animation, this is creating an atmosphere where Japan may fail to control it’s most popular export. Anime will be forced to change or fail along with Japan.

    Here is a link from ANN:
    http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2011-07-16/asahi-paper/animators-work-conditions-not-improving

    Also check out CNN and the Economist.

  7. Thanks Zeroe – Precisely. The anime industry has never truly been at full health since the mid-1980s. What we have witnessed was more of a boom borne out of several crossover successes largely built out of a select few titles that for a time brought great import value. But as soon as many of the studios were given more reign than was normal, it soon became clear that a fandom that was largely concentrated on only a few titles splintered off, leaving a lot of product without the necessary sales numbers to recoup the investments. In short, we had ourselves a mini version of the Japanese economic bubble of the 1980s. But by 2004, we began to see problems that finally came to a head come 2007. As big a hit as Haruhi Suzumiya was, all it did was confirm that more shows with an Akiba-Kei slant were going to keep the lights on. Hardly a gleaming light for success, let alone business as usual.

    For more revealing information, I highly recommend listening to MARXY and the neojaponisme podcast on Otaku 2010 for a great discussion regarding the present and hazy future of this industry. It’s was pretty rough then, and has only become moreso since the quake.

    Changes have been happening, but it may not be happening nearly fast enough.

  8. A cute girl is definitely better than a machoman on fire. War machine man can give protection but they are rather abusive and not therapeutic, yes always on fire, shooting up adrenaline. Until the bubble, or as far as until the 2005, mid-2000, nikushokukei dominated the world since the human history has been recorded. I used to hear many women say that they wished to be born male. But now, many men are saying they wish to be born female. It’s death of the Showa values and finally young people have been liberated from the old chain of masculine ideology. And after the bubble, the rail to be old with better salary, promotion, marry to a good wife/wise mother, and have children, own a car and house, these simply don’t work these days. Corporate socialism is over. So, aging is not worth anymore. Better remain young as far as you can go. School uniform is a symbol of youth.

    You can’t spend recklessly these days, and Japan is not America where credit card are swiped recklessly, dragged down with personal debts. So, young people are choosing eco-life style including romance, being soshokukei is an alternative, going inward, home-oriented, home-made, not global, but local, eco, less going abroad to study, less traveling abroad, don’t even own cars. And moe is therapy, a sense of cuteness rather than awful macho biceps, cuddlesomeness is what you want to give to a cute girl, but it’s what I want to get also. It reflects the zeitgeist of today’s youth. The grand epic anime is over, and now it’s small story time. A new era of anime has started, this is not an omen of dying but sprouting as small stories. At the same time, it can be seen as revival of the Heian period female writers aesthetics, when the culmination of Japanese literature happened.

  9. @Lamoe – As a footnote in history, this may merit mention, but as a business model, it is openly admitting to a lack of ideas. If there were enough diversity in these small stories, guaranteeing longevity, I might be more optimistic.

    1. There are ideas, but lacking implementation. I think America as the leading global market has to recover. Just watched the debate last night, and politicians talked same old, except for 999, which I never heard of. I don’t know if Americans want to implement that risky drastic idea. But interesting enough.

      There are diversity in small stories, finding awesomeness even in small little settings around your environment if you aren’t working too busy to pay attention. Yes, a feeling of yutori and mattari, and autumn is perfect for that.

  10. While I agree in the power of small stories, I believe you do not understand the thrust of my post. As much as I would like to believe that it is merely about the lack of a crossover hit, this is more about an industry’s inability to expand largely due to being rigged in a manner that will not last this way. The new era extends beyond mere trends, it extends into how the production is managed and monetized. This is the core reason for the moe trend, not so much the reaction so much as a last-ditch effort to dig themselves out of a hole borne out of being unwilling to evolve. Moe productions have been around since the 1980s, but there was also diversity. We are no longer in this largely because merchandise sales are the only thing the industry relies on the survive. If this were no longer the case, there would likely be a more democratized system- but alas, because a few are more comfortable with their heads in the sand, things will continue to be imprisoned by cheap trends. Again, it’s less risky to play it safe, and cater to the most basic, which would be alright, if things weren’t so delicate right now.

    Believe me, this is no trend, this is desperation.

  11. At the end of the day, I am also an advocate for artists. And I’ll wager that many of the remaining animators have little to zero interest in what they are working on. And this always comes with the mass production world. But there is also some kind of need for reward for talent, which in this business, there is a dangerous, terrible lack of. If it brings us so much joy, we really should make it clear beyond character goods. They deserve so much more.

    There are reasons why so many former anime talents are working in the video game industry. It doesn’t take a genius to see why. The idea that this hasn’t been considered is not only embarrassing, but borderline pathetic.

    1. I understand your post. I’m not stupid as you think though I was a slow kid back in school. I’m with you on advocacy for artists! Yes, gaming earning is more than manga and anime combined, so surely there’s an incentive for artists to work for gaming. I’m also well aware that artists are doing slave labor because of Tezuka’s Disney style mass production, which Miyazaki is highly critical of. And globalization keeps them down, their jobs outsourced to S. Korea. At the same time, talented artists are head-hunted by China and S. Korea, which heavily subsidize their own entertainment industries as national interests. K-Pop is replacing J-Pop in Taiwan. To catch up, Japan just started subsidizing to promote Cool Japan, focusing on anime movie, but domestic market is exclusively Hollywood-run. Should Japan impose quotas on foreign films like S. Korea does? But yes, most importantly, artists need subsidies the most. They earn well below poverty line, some figure says only $700 a month, impossible to do head-hunting with that in global market. After all, renaissance was successful because artists were well rewarded!

      One thing I adamantly oppose is that misconception of moe being cheap. Moe is not cheap. I will say it again, moe is not cheap! Over my dead body. I’m an otaku of moe by moe for moe. It’s not a shallow but deep and noble concept that many people outside of otaku league have come to embrace, someway a revival of Heian aesthetics, yes, renaissance, deeply seated in Japanese Alaya-consciousness that finds diverse of heart-moving in each small story, which busy people without yutori would miss and just take a cheap shot at. Moe has expanded to other fields. Moe generates profit. Moe in fact has benefited small town tourism. The profit loss of the industry is mainly due to global recession started from America caused by irresponsible politicians and bankers. Otherwise, moe earning would be expanding year by year. It never was desperation and it’s more than trend, it’s renaissance!

  12. @Lamoe

    Renaissance in turning away the masses, perhaps.

    Try saying this again in ten years.

    Thankfully, there have at least been attempts to get out of this creative corner. But this needs to run deeper. And perhaps it is up to the otaku to pirate the industry dry before they are forced to reform. It’s adapt to a global model, or perish time for all media, anime included. Closing off at this juncture is as counterproductive as is imaginable.

  13. @Lamoe

    Renaissance in turning away the masses, perhaps.

    Try saying this again in ten years.

    Thankfully, there have at least been attempts to get out of this creative corner which confirms that the moe boom was a temporary panic reflex. But this needs to run deeper. No big hit will bring the medium into greater prominence lest things change at the most internal level. And perhaps it is up to the otaku to pirate the industry dry before they are forced to reform. It’s adapt to a global model, or perish time for all media, anime included. Closing off at this juncture is as counterproductive as is imaginable.

  14. Ha ha. They should simply animate more manga. The good ones, I mean. The ideas are there. However, the industry isn’t willing to implement them.

    But I agree with Wintermuted. The industry is backing itself into a corner in the last two or three years. However, it could be that 2006-2008 was excellent, and now we’re merely back to mediocre.

  15. Without getting into the “moe or eyecancer” debate . . . there simply is less money these days, globally, for entertainment. More money means more studios and more people pursuing careers in animation. It means more freedom to experiment and innovate. Less money means industry sticking with tried-and-true methods of bringing in viewers and DVD/merch sales.

    So the clearest answer I can give is also, sadly, the least helpful: if the world economy improves, anime will move forward.

  16. @Mori – Precisely, we see much of the same practice happening in Hollywood, where they are running out of recognizable IP for plundering. The end result is often loss of revenue because familiarity inevitably runs out in any medium. The bigger piece of history that often gets overlooked is that anime as a medium in itself was in dire straits back in the 90s Pre-Evangelion/Pokemon. It took those properties to bring a more pliable amount of money back into the industry, and something of a minor bubble occurred as a result. Where all this comes to a head is that the system itself is so outmoded, and unsustainable, that it has forced producers to reduce shows into naked checklist machines. Couple this with the lack of doorway for new talent to come into an already shrinking pool, and you have negatively self-imposed obsolescence. In other words, the industry saw an uptick of money, went hog wild, and never bothered to fix a broken model, and have seen not so much an end result, but an openly visible white flag.- Especially between 2008-2010. Has there been improvement? Minor. But it is very much still like fixing a flat. And there’s only so long this can last before it gets even worse, unless the industry is forced to innovate from the bottom up due to banging heads against walls for far too long..

  17. This is a bit late to the discussion but…

    See. I’m not business savvy. I won’t claim to know everything.

    However, I AM an artist and familiar with much of story-telling, animation and comic structure so I felt like, no I HAD to, saying it.

    First of all, I’ll risk myself because this is kind of a vent on ‘moe’ saying the following:

    I feel that ‘moe’ is ironic. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the idea…

    What IS wrong with it in recent years I’ll point out though which may help Wintermuted points:

    Moe is not drawing from real life enough. There, I said it.

    Therein why it’s ironic, because moe is a human concept/ideal MADE by humans. Therefore it had to start somewhere and it became endearing PRECISELY because of its human qualities.

    Lately it’s mostly just drawing from existing ‘moe’ tropes eternally inbreeding.

    Yes, moe in and of itself is not cheap, but hell like any ideal it CAN get perverted over time through a simple factor: it’s lack of change. It needs to move forward. Not stay frozen in time while the rest of the world is moving…and changing.

    If moe really wanted to be a true renaissance, which it mostly isn’t, it HAS to be self-reflecting, self-aware and self-changing. I’m not seeing much of that these days.

    Vent finished. Secondly, this is more my optimistict two cents about the industry:

    Hopefully more grass roots and independent projects. More focus on individual/smaller group of creative minds will make it easier to make consistently sincere stories.

    Even if in the worst case scenario that all of this ends badly like some sort of nuclear fall-out I don’t doubt for a second that there will be people that will make this stuff alone if they have to.
    The kind of stories that I/we want to tell that will register emotionally for its time and the next.

    That’s all we really ask for right?

  18. The girl (the second photo) is she from an anime? If so….. What anime? I’ve seen her so many times before, I’m starting to get curious to find out who she is. Please tell me. Oh, I really enjoyed reading your article. Thank you very much!

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