Anime News Network reports on the remarks of Keisuke Iwata, who’s in charge of the AT-X anime channel on TV Tokyo. In his view, the near future for anime is grim:
In Iwata’s view, there is no room for growth since Japanese animation has reached the saturation point in the global marketplace. Due to the worldwide recession and illegal net distribution, Iwata concluded that the North American marketplace is battered, the European marketplace is in grave condition, and the Japanese companies cannot rely on the Middle East, Asia, and other regions as potential new marketplaces. He added, “as it stands, we may have to go back to the way it was in the past — back to selling Japanese animation only to the Japanese marketplace.” In order to survive in the current adverse climate, TV Tokyo is proceeding with new initiatives that include animation on American video-distribution sites.
Interestingly enough, Iwata traces the past international boom of anime to Evangelion‘s breakthrough, which was kept going with kid’s franchises like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, and sustained for several more years by Naruto. But with the recession, the ease of digital fansubbing, and the collapse of DVD sales–those days are over.
Most of this info is stuff that we already know: the industry is in big trouble on several fronts, and is turning to digital distribution and streaming to begin to make up for the losses. The twist Iwata adds is this–the possibility that anime may have to return to being a purely domestically-oriented product, with little or no thought to international distribution. In other words, we could see the number of licenses drop even more than they already have, and the demise of the rest of the North American anime distribution companies. Anime would return to being a niche outside of Japan.
I wonder, though–just how much thought has anime been putting into international distribution, even at its height? I can only think of a handful of shows that were explicitly made to appeal to an international (mostly Western) audience: shows like Cowboy Bebop, Black Lagoon, and the like. The majority of shows that have come out most seasons in my recent memory are aimed at the Japanese/Asian otaku and little more, with rare but notable exceptions–Code Geass and Death Note being a couple of examples. Iwata’s prediction could mean that we are going to see little more than otaku-focused shows for the domestic market. That, in my opinion, is not a good thing. While there have been lots of fairly entertaining otaku-oriented shows, and even some good ones, it would mean a tightening of the creative circle and fewer new ideas. I couldn’t help but notice that the anime industry peaked in 2006, which also happened to be a banner year for creativity and quality in anime. It’s a hard truth but money helps a lot in fostering room for originality. And it’s lacking at the moment.
They are taking the right steps already by making their deal with Crunchyroll and similar initiatives, I think, but the problem is whether this is going to be enough in the current economic climate. Everybody’s hurting now, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to let up anytime soon. Streaming sites are good, but while I believe this will help in not only getting fandom to be “legal,” but changing the overall mindset about the necessity of fansubs, it might not be much help financially. Hulu makes very little money, after all, and that’s for shows that have already been paid for by advertisers and sponsors and shown on TV. Is the subscription fee (which I think is fair) for the closest analogue to that, Crunchyroll, enough to help offset the costs? I suppose we’ll find out–Gonzo reportedly made a killing off of its initial streaming/download experiments on CR. For the sake of the anime industry, let’s hope that is more the case than it has been for Hulu. I would–and do–gladly pay for such a thing.
At the end of the day, it’s a perfect storm: the combination of easy downloads, the impending doom of physical media in general, and the recession has made the situation very hard. Anime will survive even these hard times, I’m sure, though maybe in a reduced state. Our hope is that the coming shakedown will leave some creativity and good storytelling in the process. Because at the end of the day, the companies and the money exist in order to provide entertainment, hopefully good entertainment.