Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Beginning of the End For Anime?

A little over a year ago, rumblings across the ever-wizened internets began about the "decline of anime". Now, much like every other medium, the internet has become a tug of war to see who can generate the most traffic for their site, which often involves people spinning the hell out of things - or just outright lying. So unless substantiated in some valid way, I usually take these sorts of things with a grain of salt. (Plus the internet is a general breeding ground for invasive stupidity - if you doubt this claim then you've never visited Yahoo Answers)

But something strange was indeed happening. Since around 2007, the number of televised anime series (we're talking about in Japan here, not second hand stuff from 5-10 years ago that airs at 5 AM on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim) was in fact decreasing. This was odd, because for the longest time it seemed like there was no shortage of interesting - and moreover quirky - titles out there. But sure enough, combing through the last few "seasons" of anime, (Seasons in quotes because anime only started working like other countries' TV seasons very recently. Generally shows are either like 11-26 episodes and might have another series years down the road, or, usually in the case of kids' shows, they'll air something like, say, Naruto, back to back forever with fillers in between because they're afraid if they pause the show they'll lose viewership.) the number of televised series has been on the decrease. In fact the whole impetus of this post was because of this article, here, which shows the Spring 2010 anime lineup. Said lineup is suspiciously absent of nearly any show that does not feature teen or preteen girls as the protagonist. Worse, most of them are absent any sort of interesting premise - i.e. - any one where if the aforementioned statutory heroes were removed, the story would actually stay intact and most of the audience's interest would hold. Which I'm sure says more about the audience than about the shows themselves.

From a personal experience point of view, I've been "into" anime since the mid-90s, but only became a fan around 2000 and a huge fan (and I'm really reluctant to use the word otaku in reference to myself at all anymore, because the permutation of that word - at least from what I initially thought of it as, to what I think it is now - and its meaning kiiiiiiind of scares me. But that's a post for another day) around 2005-2006. My point of view completely syncs up with this article here, it's so analogous to my train of thought it's scary. If you remember the late 90s at all I recommend reading it. And I do remember the key shifts. I have a weakness for cute things, I'll admit it up front. If you've been reading this blog, you know this. I also have a hatred for things that assert that they have some sort of point under the guise of what basically amounts to masturbatory fodder.

Whenever I started getting acquainted with anime - and Japanese culture as a whole - in the early 90s if you were living outside of Japan, you really, really had to dig for any info unless you lived in NYC or California or had Japanese family members or something. Ironically, when it caught on as a subculture in the mid-90s, most people billed it as "japanimation *sic* porn" or whatever, because of the few hentai titles that got dubbed & brought over, western people's ability to blanket classify anything that looks similar and non-insanely-puritanical sensibilities of the east. Since then it's kinda suffered that stigma into the present, but "thankfully" in 1998-1999 everyone then started associating "anime" with "that Pokeyman cartoon". Glad we got that cleared up. I said ironically above because, really, what was billed as "porn" was nothing compared with what's around today - and certainly what's broadcast today, as opposed to way less raunchy OAVs which you'd have to expensively buy on VHS to see a stray nipple in the yesteryear. (And I'm talking about Ninja Scroll, Toshinden's OAV, Sorcerer Hunters and their ilk, not Urotsukidoji - Legend of the Overfiend, here. Clearly things designed for people who love to fap to demon screwing ARE animated porn, because they're intended to be. And also, you can thank Douglas MacArthur for the existence of this whole genre. The only reason why tentacle monsters came to be to have sex with ninja girls so the world can be safe again is because animated tentacles aren't technically phalli, so they can be shown fornicating on film. i.e. - the people that wrote the postwar Japanese Constitution weren't Japanese and were also insanely-puritanical douchebags.)

The years leading up to Y2k really amped up the variety and crazy, gimmicky, esoteric nature of a lot of manga/anime. And I'm not just talking about Cowboy Bebop and Gundam Wing here (These were originally broadcast in 1998 and 1995, fyi). For being such a society of conformity, Japan's entertainment from the 70s until just about the present has been pretty diverse & varied, if not a little "out there". And again, ironically, in the last 5 years, the genres (or lack thereof) have shrunk, amazingly. So now, most shows fall into a few yawn-inducing categories for those of us who don't like 14 year-old looking girls labeled as 18 years-old: moe/loli, "harem" (I can't even type that word without rolling my eyes anymore), "action" (which usually involves a bunch of guys dressed up like J-Pop archetypes doing something boring involving an even more boring overall storyline) and my favorite: slice of life. Slice of life is code for, "We can't think of a story, but here are some archetypal characters that you might see naked at some point, and that interact in loose ways." But what I'm driving at here is that instead of the interesting stories spun through nice visuals like before, so much of everything is bouncing boobs (or lack thereof) and eye candy with the same ubiquitous crap-plot and the same stupid archetypes (more on that later).

When did this all happen? I mean, in the span of a couple of years we have a few good Gundam series to some cute-yet-engrossing CLAMP manga convert-series to Fullmetal Alchemist to Samurai Champloo, and now we have... K-ON and Moetan - the fucking word MOE is in the title, and she is NOT moe, she's loli. Moreover, we now have titles like "Training With Hinako" and now "SLEEPING With Hinako", and not sleeping like you think. This actually involves "sleeping next to" an anime stereotype. For people that are not led around by their penis or that aren't looking to have their inner-pedo activated or people that have contact with actual women that know that they don't exist in mere archetypes, drivel like this is kind of infuriating and I personally feel almost insulted watching some of this stuff.

Now, some people that I mingled with at a site or two before might be tempted to call bullshit on me for decrying this stuff. As I mentioned above, I like cute things, and when they're not intrusive/poisonous to the plot, I'm fine with a moe type here or there, or even a show full of them on occasion. A few good examples of these sorts of titles are Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, Shakugan no Shana and Lucky Star. Higurashi has a deeply engrossing, mysterious story with lots of likable characters, and the cute/creepy factors blend together to make an awesome series. Shana, again, has an engrossing story, it sometimes overemploys the whole moe thing, especially with regards to the whole "helpless male protagonist" device used in so many anime today, but the story and action scenes are really well done, so I really like this series a lot. Lucky Star is based on a 4koma comic, but it's not horribly perverted, for people who don't live in Japan it gives you a glimpse into more "everyday" parts of Japanese society without some hyperbole about living with an alien girl who grants your every wish or something outlandish like that. And - this is important - the rest of the series in that season did not try and emulate this or make it a semi-pornographic version of this.

You may think that the creators have run low on/out of ideas, but honestly you couldn't be more wrong. There is something of which you may or may not be aware, and that is that most anime are based off of a manga. It's like a book getting turned into a movie in the west. Sometimes parts are edited out, sometimes the plot remains faithful to the manga and sometimes they take it in a different direction entirely. And the manga market is still chock full of titles that are quirky and varied. So why not draw from the vast pool of manga out there? If you talk to Japanese industry insiders, they'll tell you that it's, "Because of piracy and the recession/economic downturn," another reason I've seen cited is, "Because the population is declining, everyone is aging and the demand for more 'youthful' entertainment is waning." While I think the second and third reasons are entirely valid, I have to call bullshit on the 'piracy' thing. If they mean piracy in Japan, more on that in a second. If they mean piracy overseas - and I don't know how they could - it makes no sense. The mass anime "fad" or boom or whatever you want to call it, ran from like 2004 and pretty much ended by 2009. Sure, there are still titles being brought over, but really, Japanese companies make next to nothing off of licensing titles out to American companies. I read somewhere that a 50-episode popular series, in this case Blood+, makes just shy of $50,000 (on second thought it might have even been $35k), but going with the $50,000 number, that's only $1000 an episode, and this was near the peak of when anime was still popular in the US. Judging by some of the sponsors you see in the Japanese broadcasts for some anime, I'd imagine at one point that they'd pay $35k an episode to advertise when the show was on-air in Japan. Additionally, aside from DVD sales, the only networks you don't have to pay out the ass to get in the US that run anime are Cartoon Network (and they've all but ceased airing anything anime-related unless you're up at 3-4 AM on weekends, and I don't keep track because I hate weeaboo dubs, but I'm pretty sure they haven't for a long while now) and SyFy, which airs like one night a week of Gundam 00 and Gurren Lagann or something. (Unfortunately I do have a friend whose husband likes weeaboo dubs) You can get the AnimeNetwork or whatever if you have the $600 a month package from Verizon FIOS, and the funimation channel (I just threw up in my mouth a little) that I didn't even know existed but guess what? Like any other business I'm sure they have exclusivity deals as well as a "going rate" for a series based on popularity or whatever, to ensure continued business. This drives the price of anything down, lack of competition, a niche market (I mean honestly, who gets a service for dubbed anime) and a going rate for a normal cable channel that's next to nothing for a popular series, I'd really hate to see what they get for something they consider "not worth their time". Internet downloads certainly don't cut into their business because, chances are if they're downloading it or watching it for free on Crunchyroll or whatever, they're wouldn't even have known about it if not for internet word of mouth. And they sure as hell aren't watching it on TV... in Japan... if they're living in Canada/America/Argentina/Timbuktu. If anything they're making more money internationally, at least in residuals/royalties, because people from all over the world have taken to buying related goods off of the internet, and I myself have dumped countless dollars into Japan's GDP via online retailers based in Japan.

What is killing Japan, at least the start of it, (toldja it was coming) in terms of anime is admitted within the same article as the piracy allegation, and it's something I never knew about. Osamu Tezuka, the "godfather of anime", that created Tetsuwan Atom/Astroboy, Black Jack, Kimba the White Lion amongst others, when selling the Testuwan Atom anime to Japanese television, asked for a ridiculously low rate of pay per episode. Japan, being the nation of conformity that it is, basically fixed the price around there because I guess everyone thought that is what it should be because the first guy proclaimed it...

Which brings us to the next point, which is that versatility is not Japan's strong suit. Sure, they make gadgets that are super versatile, and animate robots that have 3-4 forms and can fly through space or float under the sea, but when it comes to reality, notsomuch. I happened to read an article the other day that wasn't really an article, it just asserted/posited things that the writer had collected from other articles and condensed them, and the writer editorialized that:

In the early part of the last decade, particularly under the maverick administration of celebrity prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan made fleeting attempts to promote itself as the land of the new new thing: nano-this, bio-that. Nothing stuck. There is still no Japanese Google.
There have certainly been advances in Japan that are conveniently forgotten when articles like this are written because, as I said in the first paragraph, they need to put spin on things so they get readership. (Also, Newsweek has right-leaning idiots writing for them) In just the last year or two we've had the HAL Power Suit that helps people walk that couldn't under normal circumstances, working Optical Camouflage, and more that I don't feel like finding links to.

The reason that there is no Japanese Google isn't because there is no innovation in Japan, it is because old ideas (and people) often dominate thinking, and committee, status-quo mentalities prevail in certain fields. People often forget that Japan was an old-world country and was forced to industrialize or risk annexation by a European power or America, within a span of something like 30-40 years. Whereas it took Europe and the US 100+ years to do the same thing, Japan caught up very quickly. They were used to innovating/expanding in the fields of science/mechanics/engineering. Conversely, Japan has only recently (and I'm talking the last 6-7 years "recently") gotten into using computers. Japan has never been a computer-based society. E-mail only got popular because of cell phone users using it, hell, the country that "invented gaming" only bought PS2s because of the DVD playback capability, which was one of the only reasons DVDs even became popular over VHS/Laserdiscs in Japan.

Anyway, the infinite wisdom of 2channers has sussed out why "there is no Google in Japan." One was seen to remark that it's because any programmer worth their salt moves to America. And while I don't believe this in the way that most people will take it (read into that what you want), I believe it in the sense that the person probably meant it. And that is that, in a nation where in new fields "standardized thinking" is normal to keep up the status quo, everyone keeps shuffling on and old men at the top of companies keep frowning on new ideas, why would someone with new ideas not want to go abroad and get the appreciation, recognition and perhaps almost as important - the pay that they deserve? It's also no huge secret that A LOT of Japanese CEOs and famous companies' founders have studied abroad at prestigious universities, which leads me to puzzle at how/why there's such a rift.

How does this transfer over to the anime argument? I mean, you just got done saying that there was a ton of innovation in it before. Yeah, I did, but on the business end, Japanese businesses dig in and embrace their head being in the sand. You have to figure, there has only really been ONE major shift since the inception of anime as a medium. When Tetsuwan Atom's per-episode pay was negotiated and summarily laughed at, TV broadcasted shows, period. The only real bump in the road over the years was when videotapes came out and were being sold. Laserdiscs, DVDs, VHS, they probably all retained the exact same sales model in Japan. They're all tangible goods, so naturally in a society resistant to change, they have a standard way of selling all of the above.

Enter the internet. Western business struggled with internet "piracy" of TV shows, movies, etc for almost a decade before they decided it was best to just cooperate and that maybe this "previewing" would help their business. When it comes to monetizing anime over the net, naturally Japan hasn't gotten it yet. Couple that with the fact that in-betweeners get paid next to nothing and you have an industry in decline. (Though I thought that all in-betweening was outsourced to China, Korea, Philippines, Singapore, etc. I honestly didn't know anything but key animating was being done in Japan.) Upon seeing the video of the Japanese in-betweener and his apartment in the CNN video I linked above, I could scarcely believe he survives a life like that on a regular basis. I made more money in high school working for a hardware store.

So now you have less and less people going to animator school, and what people you do have remain nothing but key-animator aspirants for their entire lives - or until they get out of the field. It does draw people in because it's so damned easy to get a job - the turnover rate for low-paying in-betweener jobs always have openings. Another irony in the works here, the animator being interviewed talks about how he can't have a wife or kids because of his low salary. Apparently this person that is in the business of helping to concoct false realities for people that can't approach women is hamstrung by that very position, otherwise, I mean he seems confident enough that he'd end up with a wife, and often that's all that people really need...

Getting back to the impetus of this "book": I'm all for "cute" titles here & there, or ones that actually have some sort of plot/story. But now, things have just degenerated into a parade of "fap to this!" series based on girls who look like they're 12-17 years old (or less) that are inexplicably labeled as "of legal age" and every plot is essentially the same bullshit rehashed because they know that hikkis that don't ever speak to women will love it because it contains things to get off to. And not only does this alienate the domestic audience, that don't take too kindly to otaku types to begin with, but abroad things have gone south as well. With the market shrinking domestically (in Japan) and abroad, & with less people in the western world understanding the existence of these sorts of titles, and even most western anime/manga fans' sensibilities being offended by the majority of loli/moe stuff, is it any wonder that companies aren't clamoring to import these kinds of titles?

When you have a country whose young population is in decline, a global economic crisis and an industry where all but the top dogs earn next-to-nothing, it seems almost futile to turn things around. When you don't have an audience, you don't have an audience. But pandering to those that would see things trend into a perverted implosion of the industry as a whole doesn't help, either.

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