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Do you have to be an anime fan to watch anime now?

(warning: massive, terrifying rant ahead)

If you look here and here, you can see the decade in animation at a glance. Granted, in the beginning the industry was in a healthier state than it is now. But there seems to have been a lot more shows that were capable of luring people into our sordid little hobby. Nowadays studios look like they’ve given up on those.

Every season there’s less and less for the non-fans, less stuff to show your friends, to convert people with. No I’m not saying there’s no variety. There’s still plenty of that. Just tell us what variety of otaku you are, and boy have the last few seasons got just the show for you.

In the west we love taking the edge off our animation for the quote unquote average joe. Swords but no blood, sex but no nudity, Scotland but no Scottish accents. It seems that anime has flipped that around and now even shows that have pretensions toward broad appeal need a bit of otaku spice to ruin it for everyone else. The flagship Jump title is about making manga. PRINCESS JELLYFISH is a cute romantic comedy where the main character lives in a house full of NEETs. The main character of KIMI NI TODOKE is basically a child in arrested development who needs to be pulled back into her own age group by her supernaturally understanding friends. What a potent fantasy. Wait, who would fantasise about that again?

Being a geek, I like shows made by geeks for geeks. But in recent years the audience identification character has gone from underdog to undertrodden. He or she better not have a job or have held hands with the opposite sex before because then they might as well be an alien from outer space to the audience. No, we need someone who’s gonna make us feel good about ourselves, and that character is getting more and more unlikely every year. Pretty soon the main character of every other show is going to be a misanthrope pushing forty, in other words, unidentifiable and downright poisonous to a non-otaku audience. But if you’ve ever read my writing, I’m not one to talk.

The otaku subculture grew up years ago. Now we’re showing our age. But at some point the little underground bunker we made got big enough to become self-sustaining. Now we don’t need that outside world no more. Let’s go down there and stay down there, no point waiting for the disaster. It’s already here, and it is our lives.


  1. Perhaps my general disinterest towards most new anime of the last few years is partly a result. I’m sitting here, trying to think of a few counter-examples. In vain. I’ve been sticking with the long-running series I’ve stuck with, rewatching stuff rather than starting anything new. Maybe if I’d look into it more deeply there’s plenty of stuff I’d love. But looking at those charts steadily increasing in size each year, it’s almost impossible at this point to find out what would be appealing between all the homages, retreads and otaku-only stuff. And I consider myself a geek even!

    This is visible in western TV and movies too, let alone games. The generation of people making these series being the people who grew up with them and are geeky about them. It’s not all a bad thing really.

    There’s series finding just the right balance I think. Lucky Star and Tengen Toppa Guren Lagann were anime I could recommend to friends and theoretically watch with my parents. With the added warning that it’s “pretty Japanese” a lot of the time.

  2. “Pretty soon the main character of every other show is going to be a misanthrope pushing forty…”

    I understand what you were saying here, but I think even this would be a welcome change from the constant focus on high (and middle) school aged characters and the lives they lead. Much of the cliches and tropes of otaku-dom are related in some way to this obsession with high school life. It might not be an improvement, but some kind of variety would result if such a change in focus occurred.

  3. Oh, and I don’t think Sawako’s friends were supernaturally understanding – supernaturally interested and caring, enough to bother to understand another person, perhaps. Still an unrealistic trait.

  4. No, I do not think I should be anime geek to enjoy the contemporary anime.
    But, in fact, I feel sometimes bored with it´s obsession with high school aged (and younger) characters having nothing better to do than to come from one unrealistic situation to another one.

  5. Dr. Tenma Lives!!!

  6. School-aged characters: Sometimes they’re after a school-aged audience, too. But even when they’re not, even as a regressive fantasy it’s at least a universal one, to be young and free again and full of promise. I feel like the older otaku main characters are just plain giving up, lowest common denominator wallowing.

    That’s not to say I don’t enjoy those stories. I will buy anything Kengo Hanazawa writes. But as a widespread trend it’s pretty disturbing, and probably horrible for the industry.

    Robin: I like Lucky Star. I don’t know how I feel about that. But I would rather die than watch it with my parents.

  7. I think part of the problem is a lack of originality. Take a closer look at those ever-expanding charts: how many of the series listed on them are derivative works from visual novels, manga, games, light novels, etc., compared with truly original stories? Similarly, every year the number of sequels and remakes that Hollywood regurgitates seems to increase as studios follow the “tried and true” (and reliably profitable) path; in fact, some film critics have wryly dubbed 2011 the “Year of the Sequel” or “Year of the Repeat”. Sturgeon’s Law seems more and more true all the time.

    But the horizons are not filled solely with dark clouds. The challenge is to look past the dross and realize that among all the junk there are a few gems. There are plenty of standout original Hollywood examples in recent memory — Inception comes to mind — and on the anime front there are initiatives like Anime no Chikara to produce original stories (which, I might add, are good series for new viewers of anime).

    It’s the original, standout works that people remember best. And it’s those shows that kick reason to the curb and pierce the heavens of the otaku bunkers, to where even those outside of an insular subculture can enjoy them.

  8. I would actually leave aside the issue of quality here. Many people would argue that it’s been going down in recent years, but I’m not going to touch it. My point is a bluntly commercial one – that even if there are good shows, they’re made for an existing and dwindling audience.

    I think a better comparison would be to the American comic book industry, which has had a lot of big sellers lately but also a lot of trouble attracting new fans. The big “event” comics have sold well by doubling down on their aging fanbase, but for non-fans these stories are incomprehensible. Even if they were qualitatively amazing, who would ever know?

    This is another can of worms, but the anime industry’s consistent inability to produce a hit like the ones that Hollywood animation studios are putting out every other week is absolutely telling. Compared to those, K-ON! is peanuts.

  9. I see where you’re going with this but one of the examples you used doesn’t really fit with that current trend of anime “comfort zone” for established fans. Mainly Kuragehime which doesn’t really glorifies the NEET condition. In fact, the show keeps using it as an obstacle to the main character to assert herself and do what she likes to do. Which gets subverted as the series goes on and further still in the manga meaning she gets more and more normal as the story goes on.

    Anyway, if i had to think of a good “entry level” series for getting people into would be Tiger and Bunny. It tries to play out a western superhero story but told in a very Japanese fashion, not losing its identity and only gaining personality from it. That’s something the Iron Man and Wolverine anime failed at. The X-men anime is pretty good though.

  10. Anon: I don’t think any of my examples actually glorify an otaku lifestyle. I would say that the growing prominence of otaku main characters points to a growing prominence of stories written by otaku for otaku, and regardless of what the story actually says about otaku, if anything, that makes it less identifiable to a non-otaku audience.

    I like Tiger and Bunny too. But it does seem like something from the nineties. Which means that it probably shouldn’t also feel like such a breath of fresh air.

  11. By the way Daniel, did you knew that Crime & Punishment has been green-lighted for a screen adaptation?

    Whether it’s anime or live action, we don’t know but that probably warrants a news post in here.

  12. … I didn’t know. Thanks, posting now.

  13. Well, I’m gonna go a little off on a tangent here. While comics, manga, and anime seem to be losing audiences, webcomics, particularly Korean, seem to be doing pretty well. Not only are they free, but they allow amateurs to post on sites (naver, daum) to showcase their work, and even perhaps, with enough popularity, be paid. That’s how I understand it anyway.

  14. I dunno. Is it possible that by marketing to otaku, anime producers can expect higher revenue in terms of DVD and merchandise sales than they would if they sold their products to a less fanatical mainstream audience?

    Comparing the anime industry to print journalism is probably a stretch, but consider it a thought experiment. Otis Chandler, former owner of the LA Times, said this in 1977: “The target audience of the Times is… in the middle class… and the upper class. We are not trying to get mass circulation, but quality circulation.” In other words, advertisers are less interested securing a broad or representative or even a necessarily large audience; what they want is one with a large amount of disposable income to spend on their products.

    This is exactly what the New Yorker realized after it started to criticize the Vietnam war. The magazine’s circulation *rose* from ’66-’67, but its demographics shifted: less rich old men, and more angry college students. The median age of its readers fell from 48 to 34 years. So, even though more people were buying the magazine, it lost 40% of its advertisers, and its profits fell from 3 million to 1. Its share price went from about $10 to $4 over the next three years.

    So is the anime industry being irrational? Periodicals everywhere are increasingly becoming niche affairs, and anime seems to be following the same trend. There are holdouts; the New Yorker refused to fire its editors to win back its former advertisers, and it’s still around and kicking today (although it’s now under conglomerate ownership). It takes balls and vision to maintain your integrity under considerable commercial pressure, and I can’t get angry at K-ON for taking the safe route. Is what they’re doing really unsustainable in the long run, given that many other forms of media seem to be going towards increasing specialization? Otaku may not be capable of unassisted sexual reproduction, but new ones can be created by socialization; is the species really in decline do you think?

    I’d like to see you post your thoughts on the subject of quality. What they’re doing now may be commercially viable, but what we’re seeing in a lot of media forms is stagnation due to extreme specialization.

    Maybe subsidization would help. Look at the popularity of Sesame Street.

  15. Hey Ed,

    You’re asking a lot of good questions there that could probably be only answered with a whole bunch of statistics that I don’t have. To me, it seems only sensible to imagine that if the entire newspaper industry had piled on the same niche as the New Yorker, they would be even more fucked than they are now.

    To my surprise, I discovered recently that otaku can actually be created by socialisation and I have seen some pretty young newly minted ones. But it seems like in the past you could become an anime fan just by being exposed to culture, now you have to be actively inducted into a subculture.

    And if we’re talking about the long run, otaku aren’t the only species who are in decline, Japanese people as a whole are, especially young people. And no matter how many diehard otaku try to buck the trend, animation is a young person’s hobby. Especially since they don’t make stuff for the whole family any more.

  16. all this is the reflexion of the degradation of society, fall of western civilization (bringing down with it the newborn dead eastern civilization) the cause of all that is inflation (no not the economic one! i’m speaking about the cosmological one, year the so called entropy, but while at it you can add it to the lot) the one to blame is the inflaton

  17. Yeah, I mean, I’ve made my point here before. A good story is a good story, plain and simple. Minor things like where it’s from or how old it is or even what the format is shouldn’t be deal-breakers for you. People should be willing to give things a chance.

    I mean yeah, I am properly ashamed of liking some anime and manga, based on how everyone else perceives it. I really wish their was something that could be done. I mean, when I think of everyone I know from ages 5 to 90, I’m sure I could find some anime or manga that they would LOVE. But getting them to take a look at it is a different story.

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