Japan is losing its grip on anime, is that such a bad thing?
Somewhere around the early 2000s, anime got cool. A string of international successes, including Pokemon, Dragonball Z, and Sailor Moon aired on network TV. The creators of The Matrix cited anime as a direct inspiration, Hayao Miyazaki won an Oscar for Spirited Away, and Quentin Tarantino incorporated an extensive anime sequence into Kill Bill (Vol. 1). Anime was everywhere. Then it started to slide. “The industry is struggling,” researcher Masaharu Kubo told Tokyo newspapers in 2009. “There’s a sense that the marketable standout series have been exhausted.” Studios closed ranks, choosing to target a tiny but reliable domestic audience of die-hard fans rather than gambling on new productions for the mainstream. Now, armed with a billion pound promotional fund rather inelegantly referred to as the Cool Japan Fund Inc., Japanese anime producers have set out to recapture their global domination. It’s not going well.
Global anime fans have moved on from a heyday of semi-legal videos. It’s always been tough to find anime outside Japan, particularly in the UK. Since 2009, the UK’s only broadcast specialist, the Anime Channel, has shut down. Major anime distributors ADV films and Namco Bandai have folded as DVD sales have hit an all time low. Western fans eager to see the latest shows but unable to receive Japanese television usually turn to fansubs, unauthorised fan-translated uploads (of vastly variable quality) anime series airing in Japan, to get their fix. Part of the problem, suggests Andrew Partridge, president of Anime Limited and director of Anime on Demand, is that Japanese companies have been slower to adopt a legal streaming model. Their DVD sales are still strong, with domestic customers willing to spend upwards of £50 for limited collector’s editions, and they see little reason to deviate from that model. Anime on Demand has tried to bring a range of titles to the UK and Europe, but has encountered persistent distribution problems, encouraging Japanese studios to embrace new media channels. In an interview with Wired, Partridge said that “By the time we were launching, the concept of simulcast wasn’t hard to understand- what took longer to explain honestly was that you cannot expect operations from Japan, with nobody who understands the UK market, to do any real good for the anime market overall”.
By contrast, argues Jeremy Graves, Community Liason for Manga UK, international anime fans are committed to long-term commercial viability. Several Western companies lead the way in making low-cost near-simulcast content (broadcasting in Eurpoe at the same time as the shows are on in Japan) widely available. Crunchyroll.com was one of the first, making headlines in 2008 when it received £2.4 million in venture capital funding, on the key condition that is scrapped illegal content on its website and guaranteed high-quality, licensed material. Crowdsourcing has a role too. Start-up distributor All The Anime successfully crowdfunded its release of sci-fi anime Patema Inverted in just under five hours, raising £16,000 with 28 days left to go on the campaign. The film was distributed by Anime Limited, and Partridge announced in a press release “I’m very happy at people’s support for the business model we’re putting forward, for the film and it’s director and for us as a company”.
Many claim The Cool Japan Fund and it’s focus on Western audiences is also harming production values. Space Dandy, directed by Shinchuro Wantabe, has been praised by the fund for it’s global outlook. It premiered in the US before airing in Japan, complete with an English dub recorded simultaneously with its Japanese counterpart. It was not an artistic decision, but a commercial one. In a interview with the Anime News Network in September 2013, Shinchiro Wantanabe, who also directed Cowboy Bebop, waxed nostalgic about a time when cultural barriers were still firmly in place. “Back when Cowboy Bebop was in production, we never knew that Japanese anime would have any impact overseas, so we totally didn’t see Westerners being exposed to the show. We just made what we enjoyed making, and the fact that it got accepted in the West at all was the most surprising thing.”
Not everyone is so pessimistic. At MCM London Comic Con in May, we discussed the Western release of Blue Exorcist with it’s director, Atsushi Takahashi, and producer, Takamitsu Inoue. Both are long-standing stalwarts of the anime industry, who have worked with numerous studios and distributors. Takahashi argues “In this case, I wasn’t really thinking of audiences, per se. I had in mind the fans of the TV series and the manga and wanted to make something they’d like.” Producer Inoue, who dealt with many of the commercial attributes of the film, agrees, “I don’t really make a distinction between audience – I just want it to appeal to fans of Blue Exorcist, wherever they are in the world. Aesthetic integrity is the most important”.
It’s that push for “aesthetic integrity” though, that could be most problematic. “The focus is on pushing existing products rather than promoting or fixing the industries that create them” argues in Matt Alt in an editorial for Japan Times. The anime industry is certainly not very healthy. A 2005 investigation by the Japanese External Trade Organisation found that eighty percent of animators worked at poverty-level wages, nearly a quarter are below the international poverty line. There just isn’t enough demand, especially internationally. “Although manga and anime still retain a certain cachet abroad, Americans and Europeans who grew up on Japanese creations are now happily creating their own films and series aimed at this demographic, domestically addressing the gap in demand that Japanese content once filled” argues Matt. American-produced shows such as Avatar: The Last Airbender an The Boondocks are starting to eat away at demand for top anime, and kids who grew up watching anime inspired shows like Teen Titans and Ben 10 are unlikely to think of anime as a purely Asian phenomenon. American and European animators creating anime-style shows are sweeping awards all over the world.
DVD sales are still low even for American and European productions, howerever, the strength of Western anime, almost every expert listed here argued, shouldn’t be measured by falling sales. Its start-ups are viable, its web distributors are thriving, and its animators are winning awards. When Japan’s anime industry turned inward, Western anime went mainstream and the next generation of cutting edge content will at least partly come from Europe and America. Japan just does not have a monopoly on anime anymore – and the industry is probably better for it.
Featured Image: Diviantart
Inset: xplicit91 via Flickr