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.
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.