The party is over. It started at the turn of the millennium, and people thought it would last forever. There were ups and downs, but generally everybody had a good time. Drinks were shared, pills were downed. And then came the hangover. Some partygoers overdosed. Others found themselves in a new standing with their friends and family. And a few began picking up the pieces of those left behind. This is the story of the rise and crash of the anime industry.
Japan has always had one of the world’s biggest and most vibrant animation markets, but their animation had gone unnoticed for years in America. Only a select few shows such as Astro Boy and Captain Harlock made it onto American airwaves, and many of them were heavily edited or repurposed. One famous example is 1985’s Robotech, which combined three different series into one package. All the other series that couldn’t make it to television were traded through subtitled VHS tapes. The underground tape community was very close-knit and often pirated obscure anime that American companies wouldn’t touch. And then the 90’s happened.
The success of both Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z in the syndicated market brought anime to the forefront for the first time in American culture. The fledgling anime industry suddenly had a whole new audience foisted upon them, and new players came into the game. Companies like Saban and 4Kids began to gobble up potentially marketable properties and release them in America on kid-friendly venues such as syndication or Saturday morning television. These companies mostly had experience with the sanitized American kid-vid market, and thus a lot of these shows were heavily edited for content or localized to make the shows seem more “American”.
While Saturday mornings were restricted to little kids due to FCC regulations, cable had no limits on content, and one network in particular was ready to push the envelope: Cartoon Network. More specifically, two people at Cartoon Network. In 1997, two guys named Sean Akins and Jason DeMarco were given free reign on CN’s afternoons to program a lineup of action cartoons. This line-up was christened Toonami, and originally consisted of old content from Turner’s library, with a few acquisitions. One of those acquisitions was Voltron, one of the few anime on the network at the time, with the exception of Speed Racer (aka Mach GoGoGo) and G-Force (aka Gatchaman).
Propelled by the success of later pickup Dragon Ball Z, Toonami picked up more and more anime over the years, with each new acquisition breaking into new territory, such as shoujo like Sailor Moon or series with edgier content. Anime had hit an all-time fever pitch in America. And indeed, times were good. Anime and manga distributors were popping up left and right, and more and more content became licensed. Both a new generation of viewers and the television market needed anime to propel themselves into the future. Perhaps this initial success sowed the seeds of the market’s destruction.
Unlike the old guard, the new generation of viewers brought in by shows such as Dragon Ball Z and Naruto had an entitlement complex. Suddenly, anime became a necessity instead of a niche. Fans were entitled to free content. Fans were entitled to hearing the specific things they wanted to hear in Japanese. Fans were entitled to whine about whatever they wanted to, because of the belief that they “were the industry”. When these people realized that companies couldn’t bend over backwards to fulfill their every desire, they decided to go straight to the source and get anime and manga from Japan, for free. Unfortunately for fans, Japan is not an endless waterfall of animation and money, and what was once seen by the Japanese as a harmless event that zeroed in on American businesses had become a crisis threatening their own domestic market. Reports of Japanese publishers and networks aiding American licensees in their war against pirated subs and scans are becoming more and more common each day.
But the fans aren’t the only people who brought about the burst of the anime bubble. It was also partly the licensing companies themselves. Ironically, while the anime industry of the 90’s licensed too few shows, the modern-day industry is licensing too many. A big reason why many think that anime is somehow better than the whole of Western animation is due to the selective nature of licensing foreign output. They were being treated to the best 1% of animation Japan had to offer. As the market grew, so did the industry. More companies were actively trying to find the next Naruto or Gundam from Japan, so they decided to license as much as they can. This meant that the selective floodgates of quality had been opened, and the other 99% was suddenly available for purchase and consumption. Wasting thousands of dollars on obscure, poor quality series that no one had heard of or wanted took a considerable toll on the industry.
Television was instrumental to anime’s success, and it still is today. Without television, shows like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z wouldn’t have the widespread audience to help to market grow, and anime would still be as small as it was in the 80’s. And for a time, television needed anime as well. By the mid-oo’s, anime like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon were the only things keeping KidsWB in the national conciousness until its eventual collapse and replacement. During Toonami’s heyday, almost all the action programming on the Cartoon Network was either influenced or imported from Japan. Unfortunately for the market, American television doesn’t need anime anymore. Domestic animation is beginning to make a return in the West, and networks such as Cartoon Network are weaning off relying on Japan for content. Networks such as the Hub, Disney XD, and Nicktoons are building programming slates using Western franchises and productions.
The anime industry is collapsing, and I don’t care. The truth is that no amount of scapegoats single-handedly caused this. There were no xenophobic network executives or secret cabals involved in this. We all played a part in this, be it greedy, shortsighted licensors, “fans” who refused to pay for a product and are now experiencing the consequences, and companies who decided to jump ship when things became less financially opportunistic for them. But it might not be all bad. American companies are finally getting an interest in making quality domestic animation again, something the majority of the 00’s lacked. This decade, Japan’s loss just might be our gain.