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Introversion in Anime and Comics

by on March 28, 2011

Today, Japanese animation and American television
don’t really mix.

The former is hardly gone from the airwaves, of course. Disney XD has Naruto
Shippuden. Nicktoons runs Dragon Ball Z Kai, as does 4Kids’ “Toonzai” block on The CW along with Sonic X and Yu-Gi-Oh–well, until now perhaps.The Hub has got Deltora
Quest running next to Batman Beyond on weekday mornings. Cartoon Network
broadcasts Pokemon and a handful of lesser toyetic anime while its
Adult Swim block continues its ongoing habit of running anime that’s really
for teenagers. G4 will begin broadcasting Marvel-produced, Madhouse-animated anime this
summer, starting with Iron Man.

Syfy has a two-hour block that is erratic but lately rarely dull; what other block can claim to have put a first-class mystery thriller, mecha, Street Fighter, a gun-toting nun and
an old school space opera under the same roof?

Yet notice what these anime generally have in common, aside from Syfy programming and some limited exceptions elsewhere. In large part they are established and ongoing properties, or they exist to sell toys, or both. What’s mostly missing from the picture? Fresh, independent acquisitions and newer Japanese animation. Survey the anime scene since 2008 or even 2007, and you’ll be struck by just how few found a market in America beyond DVD. In terms of exposure and appeal in the United States, anime is still in a post-Toonami and diminished state. That block is over, Cartoon Network has largely turned inward to homegrown productions and seems to have embraced comedy as its bread and butter for now. In general airtime devoted to anime programming is simply down substantially compared to the middle of the 00s decade. This poses a problem. Not so much for today’s animation fan, to be sure; we’re at a time where anime is cheaper than ever on home video and legal online options offer countless hours of entertainment at an even cheaper cost or for free. The ones who miss out are all those kids and preteens sought after by Cartoon Network, The Hub, Nickelodeon, and Disney XD who are, on balance, offered less diversity in animated TV programming than ten years ago. The party that loses out is an U.S. anime industry that runs on a DVD market now worth about half of what it was worth in 2006, an industry that spends the vast majority of its effort marketing to the eighteen-and-up fanbase that dominates that market. While digital content may be a way to reach internet-savvy teens lacking disposable income and to establish a fresh revenue stream, the charitable thing to say is that this is a work in progress. By all accounts, there isn’t much money in it just yet.

So why does this state of affairs exist? I think there are bad and good reasons for it that say plenty about the state of creativity and animation on either side of the Pacific. My starting topic here today is introversion.

I deem it best to get that proverbial
elephant in the room out of the way first, that issue of narrow appeal that fans and
bloggers and critics have collectively talked about to death and beyond. I’m not going to retread the well-worn debate over controversial symptoms, such as the cartoons, characters and art styles of the moe fad or
pervasive fanservice; those battles have been fought countless times in
the past and they will be again. It’s enough to observe the simple reality that cartoons running on these things might be great at selling figurines and other merchandise to dedicated collectors in Akihabara, but to the average individual in Japan or the U.S. they’re just strange or creepy or both–if the show is even noticed at all in whatever late-night TV timeslot it’s probably stuck in. A worst-case example isn’t necessary to illustrate the obscurity problem. If a fan can honestly rationalize enjoying Oreimo, all right. For all I know, there’s a good argument. But I defy anyone to seriously argue that if your goal is to introduce someone to anime or just convince a person that animation at large can
be for anyone, a perfect way to do this is a show with a starting premise about a brother’s sibling relationship with a little sister that secretly plays “visual novels” on the PC. A trouble less stark but more common lies with reliance on old formulas or tropes that are just overdone or simply aren’t interesting. For instance, when you’ve
seen one or two anime about somebody moving to a new school and meeting a
small army of pretty girls or boys, let’s be honest: you’ve seen most of them.

Rather than being too obscure or shameless, they’re just too ordinary.

To be fair, it
isn’t as if all this is totally unique and specific to Japanese animation or culture, a point I fear critiques of this problem tend to overlook (though in fairness, that makes some sense coming from professional or dedicated anime critics). One needs to only look the popular criticisms of the American comic
book industry amid falling sales to confirm that. When Darwyn Cooke exhorts DC to commit to youthful readers and “…stop catering to the perverted needs of forty-five-year-old men,” that puts the fringe tastes of thirty-something Japanese otaku in some perspective. The originality challenge is certainly no stranger either; for good and ill decades-old creations clearly drive the industry and plenty of fans possess the sort of mindset that insists that Hal Jordan be treated as the one “real” Green Lantern. Let’s not even get started on what Joe Quesada did to reset Spider-Man. The issues involved do differ in nature and scale, however. For starters Marvel and DC are titanic forces in their industry, they do publish a lot of good talent, and they certainly don’t suffer from these problems the way that much smaller anime studios do. What’s more, beyond the comic page superhero animation has been a refuge of superb creativity at its best in the past twenty years. Decades of lore and history allow a lot of room for reinterpretation.
Free from the constraints of comic canon and its adoring fans, time and
again creators have been allowed to reimagine and reintroduce iconic
heroes on their own terms.

Most importantly to the subject at hand, superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are ingrained in our popular culture.

Obviously, none of these advantages exist for the recent crop of underage females with cute faces propping up the latest odd, boring or even perverse idea. On the contrary, they’re all too often forgettable and disposable once the next crop comes along. That said, while I obviously consider all this true and very relevant, I also think the issue can risk
being oversold. My argument isn’t that these troubles somehow define
anime today all by themselves, or that there hasn’t been a good share of
interesting anime and signs of very encouraging creativity. There are, there have been, there will be. The trouble is that there are enough of
these mediocre and insular titles to easily get into the double digits each year at a time when far
fewer TV anime are being made, and that’s enough to alienate both your average viewer and plenty of fans that loved anime when that meant embracing Dragon Ball Z or Gundam or Sailor Moon or Akira or whatever you loved best ten years ago. The challenge is that this content is supported by home video and merchandise sales in Japan; it can survive and security is a comfortable thing to have in an era of economic hard times. But for the sake of creativity and industry growth in the long run, it’s an obstacle that needs to be overcome for those that believe that Japanese animation can and should be a leading export.
A relatively young player in the anime industry, Yutaka Yamamoto,
recently put
it best to Asahi.com earlier this year: “The anime industry is
to have become introverted. But our business is about providing
something fun and exciting to people. I decided to stop being
inward-looking.” The industry could undoubtedly use many more people talking and
thinking that way.

I previously alluded to happy signs of creativity in anime today. Ironically, some of the best examples of this either aren’t available in the West yet or don’t necessarily have good prospects for distribution. Where are they? Perhaps we should be asking U.S. companies and television networks. Is there something wrong with a product that very likely isn’t offering what an American network is looking for? In and of itself, I think the answer is an empathic no. What good things do I see in creativity for anime today? All that is a subject for another day.

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