Faces of Anime's Past and Present, Reflecting a Troubling Future...
This blog will be one of the most important ones that I ever write. It reflects fears that I've had concerning the anime industry for some time now. Two recent (but in some ways looming) events now come perilously close to confirming that those fears are justified. The picture above is presented here for multiple reasons. For one, these faces are those of prominent anime characters, from animes that can effectively serve as two bookends of a period of incredible growth in the anime industry.
From 1995's El Hazard: The Magnificent World to 2009's The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya movie, anime has been a place of grand and compelling narratives, and of entertaining and psychologically fascinating characters, able to rival the best that other entertainment genres and mediums could muster. It is true that there were great animes both before, and after, the dates of these two animes, but I personally feel that 1995 to 2009 is where you find the bulk of great animes, and where the industry had both the quality and quantity of material to put it on par with even the best that other narrative mediums could offer.
But that may sadly be about to end...
One reason is an event that every reader of this blog likely knows about. It's the passing of the Tokyo Youth Ordinance Bill.
Much has been written about this, and it would at this juncture be somewhat redundant for me to add to the volumes that has already been wrote on the topic. To sum it up in a nutshell, though, the anime and manga industries could soon be facing very strict regulation that will make it excessively difficult to sell its more edgey and mature stories to a wide, mainstream audience that goes beyond the most hardcore of otakus.
Now, we may be seeing the first signs of the anime industry's response to this bill, in its upcoming Spring Season listings. The release (and makeup) of this listing is the second event which concerns me here, as I frankly think that it shows that the anime industry, much like both of the anime characters featured in the pic above when faced with imposing clerics, is now in full retreat. Also like both of those anime characters featured in the pic above, I think that the anime industry has now taken upon itself a siege mentality, in which it feels victimized and defensive.
So... I think that the anime industry is beginning to collapse into a shell, by conceding more mainstream markets while focusing solely on a collection of niche otaku audiences.
Why is my assessment so dire?
Because the Spring Season of anime is not just any season. Historically, the Spring Season is to anime what the Summer Season is to Hollywood movies - in other words, it's the season of ambitious blockbusters. This is when the most renown and influential of the animation studios bring their "A" games, so to speak. This is when the Sunrises and SHAFTs and Kyoto Animations of the world typically bring out their flagship titles. This is when you'll get new animes that are carefully crafted to have broad appeal and high production values.
Don't believe me?
Then let's look over some of the bigger anime titles of the last five Spring Seasons...
Spring 2006: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Fate/Stay Night, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni
Spring 2007: Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS, Darker than Black
Spring 2008: Code Geass R2, Soul Eater
Spring 2009: Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, Haruhi 2009, K-On! (arguably)
Spring 2010: Durarara!, Angel Beats!, K-On!! (arguably)
Say what you will about K-On!, but at least the concept behind it was a somewhat new and fresh one, as it cuts out the male lead entirely. It also had great commercial success. And while Angel Beats! and Code Geass R2 may have been narrative messes, at least they were very ambitious narrative messes. The moment that I saw the first promo image for, read the anime premise for, and saw the first trailer for, Angel Beats!, I knew that Jun Maeda was aiming for a hit anime here. That this was an ambitious project on his part. That he wasn't just playing it safe, in other words.
Now compare the animes listed above to all the ones shown here.
Honestly, folks, do any of these make you think of Haruhi? Or of Code Geass? Or even of Angel Beats!? Do any of these feel like a serious and ambitious attempt at a blockbuster TV series anime with broad appeal to you?
Now, let me be clear here, I'm not saying that there's no good animes here. For example, TWGOK S2 will probably be a decent watch just as its first season was. But let's be honest here: It's target audience is a very limited one. It's aiming strictly at one, maybe two, specific niche fanbases within the broader anime fan community. Likewise, there's nothing coming out for Spring 2011 that strikes me as being like a Code Geass, or a Haruhi. In other words, I see nothing here that seeks to fuse many different popular anime elements and subgenres together to appeal to a broad "casual otaku" audience. And I certainly don't get the sense that any of these Spring 2011 animes are aiming for a grand epic narrative, like most of the previous Spring Season anime blockbusters that I mentioned above.
So what does this mean, exactly? What does anime's equivalent to a Summer with no Hollywood Blockbusters mean? Why the atypical lack of such animes?
Blockbusters become blockbusters by taking risks. By trying to balance several different (and sometimes even conflicting) elements together in order to appeal to a broad cross-section of fans. Often times, they also try to create grand gripping tales to bring in folks that (like myself) just like a great story - a great story like that of El Hazard: The Magnificent World or The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya.
There's always a slight risk with these sorts of shows that the fusion won't go off well. That the balancing act will not hold. It's much easier, and in some ways safer, to just play to one niche part of the broader anime fandom. For example, I'm confident that Oretachi ni Tsubasa wa Nai will go over great with the same people who love Amagami SS and Yosuga no Sora. But unless it surprises me, it won't bring in everybody who liked Clannad: After Story. And unless I'm really misjudging one or more of the upcoming Spring 2011 animes, none of them really strike me as a serious attempt to appeal to a broad section of anime fans, as virtually all of them strike me as aiming strictly at only one or two smaller niches within the broader anime fandom.
I'm truly starting to think that anime is going into a siege mentality now, probably brought on in part by the Tokyo Youth Ordinance Bill. I'm starting to think that the anime industry is just going to play it very safe for the foreseeable future. But by playing it safe, they may be ironically and tragically setting the stage for their own decline.
Enjoy the picture at the top of this blog while you can. Because if anime continues on its present course, the day may be coming when you'll never see colorful multifaceted anime characters like those two ever again...