Anime in the Coming Decade
Moe Won’t Die, But It Can Kill
One of the biggest anime of 2009, maybe even of the decade in Japan if we’re talking merchandise and media sales, was a little slice-of-life show by the name of K-ON. Animated impeccably by Kyoto Animation (home to other otaku favorites like the The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya series, Lucky Star and just about every good dating sim adaption,) it was a wildly successful in Japan, just as one would expect given it’s linage. Like previous Kyoto titles, its characters quickly shot to the top of favorite character surveys in Japanese magazines and on Japanese websites, otaku not only bought the usual swath of official figurines and unofficial doujinishi, but they bought replicas of the character’s musical instruments, even though they may never actually play them. Otaku in Japan even traveled to other parts of country so they could watch the broadcast in real-time just that much sooner.
However, six months later, this wildly popular show sits unlicensed in North America (yeah, I know the cycle is slower these days, but this was the big title of the season for otaku,) and even in Japan, K-ON is sliding down the character and TV series surveys in favor of the next moe-blob anime (a term coined to describe the rounded and almost nondescript design of many current otaku favorites.) Rather than a lasting Beatlemania-like popularity, K-ON’s reign feels more like the Monkees’ or maybe more tellingly Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ (or for our younger readers, K-ON’s success maybe more like Hanson than Green Day.)
Now, don’t get me wrong – I think K-ON‘s a fun show, and when compared to other recent Kyoto adaptions of the slice-of-life-comedy genre, namely Lucky Star and the most recent season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (both of which had direction issues,) it’s one of their better titles. Solid animation, solid pacing and generally enjoyable, with little references for the music fans paying close attention. I’m actually hoping someone grabs it for a US release.
However, K-ON and it’s ilk can’t be the driving force of the anime industry, not even in Japan, let alone internationally.
Why? Because the otaku-oriented moe style doesn’t seem to work outside of otakudom. Within that fandom, it yields tenuous popularity at best (a corollary exists with the bishonen-driven style marketed to fujoshi [girl otaku] but considering they’re marketed to sparingly relative to otaku, it’s not an immediate concern to the anime medium.) You certainly can’t take titles like that to the broadcast outlets anime currently has in the US, and it’s TV exposure that changed anime in America from the niche hobby of nerdy college-age males, to something mainstream enough that manga like Fruits Basket and Naruto took Top 20 spots in the USA Today book sales charts. None of that was built on the back of being purely otaku oriented though, and some of the best titles from moe realm have ultimately not panned out, leading one to question the overall direction of the industry.
Take for example the first season of Haruhi – it was incredibly well-received in Japan and internationally, at least if forum discussion and merchandise sales are any indicator of success. Even with that initial positive reception, we now see the US limited edition release on clearance at RightStuf for a fraction of what the volumes initially went for, and even less than original standard edition singles. Lucky Star is even more problematic: it’s limited edition volumes were canceled due to slow sales.
Now, to be fair, the whole anime industry was moving away from singles, and towards the high-end limited editions that many fans demanded (yet not many purchased as time went on) were caught in that shift. More pressingly, moe is probably here to stay – unless a huge shift or backlash in otaku tastes occurs in Japan, that market seems constantly ravenous for new, somewhat generic 2d-idols that you can make figurines and pillow cases out of. However, the notable issues with moe titles that seemed like such sure-fire successes makes it clear that the purchasing habits of Akihabara can’t dominate where the industry goes if you want shows to work internationally. Well, actually, maybe it can, but it’s going to require some give and take.
Time is Money
Plenty of American distributors have been candid about the problems they’ve had getting Japanese distributors to realize their niche title wasn’t worth the kind of money Pokemon, Naruto or Dragon Ball Z command. The pressure to get studios to more accurately gauge the value of their series upfront is more critical than ever with the move to box sets. To be fair, a lot of studios have gotten the message, and even on series that were very popular in Japan, they’ve begun to recognize that America isn’t the same country (with the retail price of box sets beginning to shift from the $120-$200 to $40-$70 dollar range.) But that’s only half the battle, maybe even less.
After all, you start with the fact that not every company in Japan seems to have gotten the memo that the anime bubble has burst. In spite of seeing some of their contemporaries and American partners go bankrupt, some Japanese studios and distributors don’t yet understand that the US market is very different from Japan. In fact, they’ve gone in the exact opposite direction necessary. While US releases are becoming inexpensive (some recent boxset MSRPs are similar to that of a Hong Kong bootleg,) major titles in Japan are still often at best 3 episodes per disc, and often runs between $70-100 a disc. Amazingly, 10,000 copies or more will move in first week sales with many Japanese otaku buying multiple copies of a disc at outrageous prices. Yet, some Japanese studios and distributors, even after the direct failure of Japanese-style marketing in the US (as seen with Bandai Visual USA,) don’t get it, and want too much for a title with limited marketability. This results in various titles of all sorts sitting on the side lines, losing their market value (as the longer it’s unlicensed, the less hype it has surrounding it, and thus the less likely it is to sell well) while the US company tries to hammer out a deal that will allow them to turn some kind of profit given the projected sales for that title.
Now, if moe is going to be an on-going and often dominant part of anime, then the price points have to give because you’re never going to get any crossover into the mainstream with these titles, and you simply can’t charge the consumer the same amount for this type of show. In fact, everything that’s not DragonBall Z, Naruto or Pokemon, even if it’s a really brilliant, unique niche title, has to cost less than it used to now. That makes things difficult because a lot of anime studios used to use the upfront payments and royalties from US firms to get themselves into the black on titles. Now, at the very least it’s going to be mostly on royalties (upfront advances just won’t cut it,) and those profit points might be out there for an uncomfortably long time in an industry already notorious for underpaying most of the talent involved. However, that’s the direction in which it has to head, and really, the Japanese studios need to understand that it’s better to get some money for a show than nothing. The longer things drag out, the higher the probability that they’ll get nothing for a title. For the studios in Japan with libraries of content that stretch back decades, the only way those classics will turn up is if the upfront cost is very low and the same can be said of a new but niche title (regardless of why it’s niche.)
There is a way for anime companies to get good money from US companies again, and diversify their offerings in the process. They might even reverse loss of talent (both in the US and Japan) to the video game industry. But the hardcore fandom might be a bit adverse to this, and it’s a big risk for everyone involved…
If there is a future, it’s not in isolation: co-produce or stagnate.
Co-productions. The idea has produced some amazing work that probably wouldn’t have been half good without upfront capital from multiple international companies. The Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series and films, Samurai Champloo and Afro-Samurai just to name a few owe their existence or at the very least their excellent quality to a combination US and Japanese companies putting up money from the get go. Now, it’s not always panned out – ADV’s Lady Death was roundly panned by critics, Eureka Seven was not the explosive success Bandai Entertainment hoped for and IGPX managed to be one of the most beautiful flops ever animated. Shame too, because at least IGPX and Eureka Seven were quite good and certainly fun.
Still, that money ensured diversity because by and large it wasn’t American co-pro dollars or even pre-license dollars going to bland moe titles – they can support themselves in Japan for the most part. No, it was going to the kind of shows that tend aimed for something fresh and unique while also shooting for a wide, crossover audience. If that influence disappears, anime viewers the world over will be lucky if there are two unique series a season, and of that handful, maybe one classic a year. Add to that the fact that outside of Fuji TV’s Noitamina block, a block explicitly created to have anime that’s outside of the typical demographics, there are not a lot of shows these days that are really trying to break new ground, and that can in part be chalked up to a lack of co-production creating an incentive to be different.
In fact, if you took Noitamina out of play, the past few seasons in Japan would’ve been pretty dry for titles that aren’t moe fodder or kids shows or both. You’d have Michiko to Hatchin, Darker Than Black and uh… hmm. There aren’t even good number of shoujo anime titles, especially borderline josei-titles like Honey And Clover, Nodame Cantabile and Kimi no Todoke without that one block. Anime’s diversity shouldn’t hinge on so little because it’s too easy for that to dissappear with one management change (much as Cartoon Network’s programming diversity shouldn’t have hinged on essentially Toonami.)
Now, with Funimation announcing a head of original development, that might be exactly what is needed to keep things diverse, high-quality and therefore more viable, but it’s got to be original development. It’s going to take hard work, a commitment to working with people may not give a care about executive notes, and the courage to soldier on inspite of the occasional dud. It’s certainly not going to work if the game plan is to just license some generic US teen literature series or some random manga, and then throw that at any old studio and director with a bag of money. I don’t think they’ll do that either – they supposedly insisted Akitaro Daichi return for any Fruits Basket continuation they put their money behind, and upon hearing that Natsuki Takuya, Fruits Basket’s manga-ka, wouldn’t support that, they dropped because they knew a shift in staff wouldn’t work. However, that same stringent standard will be essential in making sure they make good, marketable work.
Part 4: So what if the industry stays moe and overpriced?
Somehow, in spite of the fact that a lot of the old generation of the anime fandom has dropped out from attending cons constantly, and even a notable percentage of the anime boom era fandom seems to be cutting back on con attendance and spending (to put it another way, I’m a boom era fan and many of the friends I made through anime don’t care about it much any more,) anime cons keep getting greater attendance from coast to coast, and it begs the question whether diversity really matters. Maybe everything can be reverse harems, yaoi and shota for the girls, regular harems, yuri and lolis for the guys and slice-of-life high school anime for everyone. Shoot, even with those restrictions, it not like some good shows aren’t made – shows like Gunslinger Girl, Ouran High School Host Club and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya all have their explicit target demographics, but they are all also wonderfully done shows with great characters, fantastic settings and all the technical points locked down. However, I think if you want to get any of the old generation or even a lot of the anime boom generation interested again, it’s not going to be with the easy otaku and fujoshi plays, even the really fantastic ones with spot-on technical skill. Too many long time fans have been their and done that, and they came to anime because it was doing something bold and new, not holding to tropes in lock step. I think even the newer fans will burn out on it if their isn’t a commitment to being smart and emotionally complex as well, and well, that growth will level off if not reverse.
Even in Japan, various artists have ranted about how empty the scene seems right now. Some might argue it’s been that way for a while – Hayao Miyazaki bemoaned that anime was too focused on objectifying the characters rather than developing them for decades, and he probably still does to this day. The difference is, when Miyazaki started his complaints, a whole generation of brilliant auteurs seemed to take that as a challenge and frankly proved him wrong about the medium falling towards emptiness. Yes, the fandom would and always will objectify the characters, but the directors could use that tendency to get people not only to watch series and movies that were vastly more brilliant than they may have initially made clear, but get them to love that work for having pushed those boundaries. However, no one seems up to the challenge of building on the legacy that directors like Hideki Anno, Kazuya Tsuramaki, Shinichiro Watanabe, Satashi Kon and others from that mid-1990s-to-mid-2000s era have left. There are new geniuses out there to be sure – Masaaki Yuasa, Makoto Shinkai, Saya Yamamoto and so on, but they can’t be geniuses lauded for their brilliance and then left on the edges of the industry. If anime is ever going to have another boom, if talent is going to stay at companies and deal with the mediocre pay, horrific hours and outright poverty that tends to come with being an animator or even often with being a VA in Japan, the crazy geniuses have to be running things, not the accountants happy to market yet another toyetic moe series in a bid to sell otaku 10 copies of the same blu-ray disc with different postcard pack-ins. After the global recession, outside of the truly obsessed that marketing tactic won’t work anymore, and so casual anime fans are your incentive to stay diverse and ultimately make more money by doing that.
I mean, after all, the generic titles from the 90s, even the really good ones, are falling by the wayside when it comes to what gets reissued in hi-def and which licenses gets expanded or extended. But those groundbreaking titles? Those shows are insanely perennial, and you can keep putting them out ad-nauseam in new formats. Make a Cowboy Bebop or an Evangelion, eat for decades. Make a K-ON, eat very well for maybe a year. Sure by pushing boundaries, you might make a Koi Kaze and be lucky to eat at all, but that’s the risk. To me, the choice is obvious though, because studios like Ghibli in Japan and Pixar in America don’t think in terms of making temporary titles – they aim high. Not every studio may have the talent to stick that every time, but even once in while is enough to keep a studio secure.
At the very least, if anime is going to be an internationally viable medium to the extent it was at it’s peak in the early-to-mid-00’s, the trends in motion must reverse.