Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
A Return to Form for a Dying* Medium
*In America, anyway
The glory days of the American anime industry are long gone. From about 1998 to about 2006, companies like ADV, Funimation, Central Park Media, Geneon, and Media Blasters all saw big sales and increasing amounts of fan and media attention when Japanese animation, or anime, briefly went mainstream. I was suckered into it as well, first seeing ads for Akira on MTV in the mid-90s, and then staying awake late at night and catching weird little animated shows at off-times on basic cable. I was also really into Street Fighter II, the animated adaptation of which remains one of the best videogame-to-movie adaptations out there. By the early 00s, thanks to the combination of the “Cool Japan” fad and the proliferation of Sony’s PlayStation 2, DVDs were selling like hotcakes, with even mediocre releases of bad shows like Love Hina selling incredibly well. Individual volumes of shows like Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion were rumored to be selling nearly 100,000 units a piece or more, which at $30 a disc was a big deal. ADV, a now-defunct Texas-based anime distribution company, claimed to generate 150 million dollars in sales in 2004 alone.
On television, Cowboy Bebop and FLCL gained continuous, almost ubiquitous airtime on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, where they aired over and over and drew strong ratings, which contributed to the earlier mentioned DVD sales (I purchased every volume of Cowboy Bebop, meaning I spent almost $200 on six DVDs back in 2001-02). That same network also helped finance a second season of The Big O, a cult-show with much of the same look and feel of early 90s toon hit Batman: The Animated Series. The SyFy network began airing anime again as well, bringing back a block of time devoted to it once a week. Children’s shows like One Piece, Naruto, and Pokemon became marketing machines, generating billions in sales for companies like 4Kids Entertainment (which no longer owns the rights to the Pokemon anime, it should be mentioned). By this time period, anime was so popular that it was famously parodied by culturally important, long-running American television series such as The Simpsons and South Park.
In the film world, the anime medium may not have reached the box office heights of stalwarts like Disney/Pixar, but in March of 2003, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (a film I don’t even particularly care for, mind you) won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Yes, it was a weak year (Pixar didn’t even have a 2002 release, if I recall correctly), but that Oscar win was absolutely huge for anime. The anthology film The Animatrix, a side-journey into the world of the popular Matrix film series, also sold incredibly well, and one of the shorts debuted theatrically in early 2003, several months before the domestic release of the first sequel film, The Matrix: Reloaded. Suddenly we were hit with a deluge of “Anime has arrived!” articles, each one about as deep as the average Buzzfeed feature. Books touting the “Cool Japan” ethos began popping up on shelves of bookstores as well. In May of 2005, the Navarre Corporation (an entity known mainly for producing that cheap software that sells for ten bucks in Walmart) outright purchased Funimation for a cool 100 million dollars and stock options.
What most people failed to realize at this time, however, was that anime was a fad that existed in a bubble. People liked The Matrix and people liked Kill Bill (which also featured an animated segment, from celebrated studio Production IG). People are also curious about Oscar-winning movies and cultural phenomena. But cultural tides shift, tastes change, people grow out of things and then most people eventually move on. By 2006, it certainly seemed the number of people who cared deeply about anime had dwindled. The big retail stores began carrying less and less anime-related merchandise and DVDs, and some of them (Suncoast Motion Picture Company, RIP) even closed outright or were near bankruptcy (Central Park Media, one of my favorite distributors of schlock). What’s super weird about the end of the bubble was that attendance at fan conventions continued growing (and still continues) and manga sales, while affected slightly, remained rather strong. Anime, however, seemed nearly dead overnight, or at least a whole lot less cool.
There were many factors that contributed to the end of the bubble. Certainly one big factor was the
unrealistic expectations set on anime by the Japanese industry. By 2004, licensing costs for shows became extremely expensive, with the most valued shows selling for a rumored $70,000 per episode. This puts the cost for a thirteen-episode television show at nearly one million dollars per. This also doesn’t even factor in dubbing and other American-side production costs, such as DVD pressing. Studios like ADV and Geneon flamed out in the mid to late 00s because of diminishing sales and high production costs. By 2008, Geneon no longer existed. By 2010, ADV as we all came to know it no longer existed either (it lives on as Section 23 and Sentai Filmworks mainly). In the late 00s, the prices of American DVDs dropped considerably. Anime could not compete with this, as high licensing costs almost necessitated high-priced DVDs. Even legacy releases, like the boxed set of Trigun, for example, remained high-priced. So, in theory, why exactly would someone pay $180 for a six-disc collection of something that wasn’t as cool anymore when one could just pay $40 for season two of LOST and continue to be part of a larger cultural conversation? It just no longer made much sense.
Audience tastes for Japanese animation, particularly within Japan, also witnessed a fundamental change during the mid 00s. Where inventive science fiction shows, like Patlabor or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, were once the norm, now moe (pronounced mow-eh) began to dominate Japanese media. Shows about boys who wanted to date their little sisters (but it’s ok, because they’re actually really cousins or something!) or little girls who are really killer assassins and also maybe lesbians or from space perhaps became all too commonplace. These shows appealed to the Japanese otaku (read: hardcore fans) while maintaining almost zero appeal for anyone anywhere else, particularly in America. This was the era of shows like Moon Phase and Strike Witches – shows I’m embarrassed to even know the names of. While it is true that shows like these have probably always been around, this was the time period where it felt like moe was just way more out in the open than ever before.
This period also lacked a distinct medium-defining hit. Some may argue that Fullmetal Alchemist was the huge hit that defined this era, and it indeed came close, but it just didn’t seem to have the same staying power (and its updated, second adaptation wasn’t as popular as the first go-round) as the big hits that preceded it. When compared to what had come before it (Dragonball Z, Cowboy Bebop), Fullmetal Alchemist just doesn’t quite reach those heights, at least on American shores. I absolutely loved FMA at the time and I collected the entire show on DVD – but even I will admit it didn’t crossover the ways shows a half-decade earlier had. I would equate it with Gundam Wing, a popular show from the early 00s in America that threatened to become massive but never quite reached that level. Shows like One Piece and Bleach were monstrous in Japan, but they didn’t reach the same numbers in America, probably due to the fact that they ran for hundreds and hundreds of episodes, remaining almost impenetrable to the average fan just starting out. Naruto remains immensely popular in the states, but it is largely targeted at the elementary and middle school crowd, having little adult crossover appeal.
There were also a few anime series prematurely dubbed the saviors of the medium. Does anyone remember
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya? That show went absolutely nowhere after its solid first season, especially in America. Is there even a domestic commercial release for the Haruhi movie yet? This is all to say nothing for the rise of digital media (which anime was slow to get on board with), the death of print media (which took with it most of the prominent anime-related magazines), the rise of internet streaming (which began badly for anime), increasingly heavy piracy (which remains the only way to even get some of this stuff on American shores), the death and burial of the “Cool Japan” fad (which is never coming back – let it go), and the continued rise of videogames as a more interactive experience for the average consumer (and a place where young professionals in Japan can cut their teeth more quickly than in the anime industry, see: Bayonetta for example). These factors all played into the death of the American anime industry, and each is incredibly important in its own way. I am loath to gloss over them like this, but it’s time I got to my main point: Anime seems to be making something of a slow but steady comeback.
Some may argue that anime never truly went away, and they would probably be mostly correct. In America, anime fandom remained strong solely based on convention attendance alone, but DVD sales indeed fell off a cliff and the number of Japanese properties on American television dwindled down to all but a handful. The core fans remained as well, but the number of hardcore anime fans in America is hard to gauge, and certainly far less than in the boom years. But projects like Summer Wars, a film targeting teenagers and young adults, and Redline, a throwback-in-feel anime film targeting an older demographic, succeeded at least artistically if not financially. Mamoru Hosoda, the director behind Summer Wars, went on to create Wolf Children, another non-moe, critically acclaimed anime. Wolf Children was a bit hit in Japan during the summer of 2012, and garnered a 92% rating on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Importantly, it also out-grossed Summer Wars and even beat Disney/Pixar’s Brave on its opening weekend in Japan. Wolf Children was released onto DVD in America not long ago and while I haven’t seen it, I am still excited to do so in the near future (Summer Wars is one of my favorite animated films of the last ten years). Redline is readily available in Best Buy for the low price of $14.99.
There are also three recent television releases that have reached a wide domestic audience, much to my surprise. Space Dandy, from the creator of both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, has been something of a crossover success. It has garnered much acclaim, caused much conversation online, and will see a second season in the near future (which counts as a huge success). Like Bebop and Champloo before it, Space Dandy has also aired on Cartoon Network, as part of the late night Toonami block, which had been revived in the spring of 2012 after a four-year absence, and the show, while I haven’t seen it yet, looks like an absolute blast. Kill la Kill has been another recent conversation starter online. From the director and writer team of 2007-08 hit Guren Lagann, Kill la Kill is targeted at an older crown (“seinen”) and has been streaming on Hulu and Crunchy Roll, two of the most important and popular online streaming services out there. While the show has not been licensed to appear on Cartoon Network, it has been well received by critics at such places as Anime News Network and Kotaku and I have yet to hear anything really negative about it.
The biggest hit in years, however, has been Attack on Titan, which has seen a monstrous presence in fan
circles for the past year or so. Based on the highly popular manga, Attack on Titan aired its first 25 episodes in Japan last year and is currently streaming subtitled on Hulu. It is set to air on Cartoon Network starting in May and will also receive a Blu Ray/DVD release from Funimation in early May. Attack on Titan has been a huge hit due to its incredible world building, compelling characters, and graphic violence and action scenes (something Fullmetal Alchemist lacked). I’ve seen it compared to American television series The Walking Dead, but that show is terrible and should be seen by no one. I would compare Attack on Titan to HBO’s Game of Thrones, another serialized action/drama that is ostensibly “medieval” in more ways than one and also features compelling characters and a fair share of graphic violence. Attack on Titan has the opportunity to become the biggest hit in anime in America in years, and certainly the biggest hit since Fullmetal Alchemist. I would argue that it already is that big. I expect huge ratings when it finally debuts on Cartoon Network next month, especially if the dub is any good.
I honestly do not expect anime to hit the level of saturation it reached in 2004. I think that ship has long sailed, and due to an enormous amount of reasons we will never be there again. But for the first time in probably eight years or so, I feel like the medium is finally going somewhere again domestically. I haven’t been this excited for releases in a long time and I plan on picking up the Funimation release of Attack on Titan on day one, even though it is available streaming legally online. I want to share it with people, people like my girlfriend who enjoy the best of the bunch of anime casually. That’s the thing about Summer Wars, Redline, Wolf Children, Kill la Kill, Space Dandy, and especially Attack on Titan – they can be enjoyed casually by most people and not just a few thousand hardcore otaku. The opportunity is there for anime to once again reach a wide, mainstream audience made up of casual fans. It’s ok to be a casual fan! Let’s show the big production companies that we care about this stuff when it is good and entertaining. If it doesn’t continue, than the last few years have at the very least given us a good dozen or so entertaining projects to enjoy until the next big thing hits, if it ever happens. I’m hoping it does.
Opinion ADV, Anime Reviews, Attack on Titan, cartoon network, Central Park Media, Cowboy Bebop, Crunchy Roll, FLCL, Fullmetal Alchemist, Funimation, Guren Lagann, Haruhi Suzumiya, Hayao Miyazaki, Hulu, Kill la Kill, Mamoru Hosoda, Redline, Space Dandy, Spirited Away, Strike Witches, Summer Wars, Toonami, Wolf Children