Sea Change

Posted: June 15, 2010 by chdr in Animation, Animation Editorials, chdr

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.

  1. silvertomatoproductions says:

    This is the single most intelligent opinion piece on the anime industry I have ever read, and makes me very proud to be a part of this grand experiment. Thanks, guys!


  2. Sketch says:

    Really fantastic article chdr though it’s not entirely true that anime is out it simply moved online and streaming sites are seeing a boom of anime.

    But you’re entirely right that less anime on US television is in part due to more animation from America and this is by all means a good thing.

    Anime was oversaturated in recent years and hopefully the distributor learn from those mistakes. The backlog of quality simply isn’t there anymore though there are some titles still waiting to be noticed some old and some new. Few really suit American television though.

    This is why the only anime I desire to see on US television is One Piece and while it many senses its a lost cause at this point it does still sell and it could sell better with a TV deal again. To me it’s the finest Japanese show not airing on US television. I have a personal bias towards it but I have a lot of faith in that one show. Everything else really doesn’t matter to me at this point. I’ll buy what I like and leave the rest but One Piece is a show I would love to see on US television again. But if it never does, I can still watch it legally so I’m pretty content.

  3. chdr says:

    ^ My problem with online streaming is that for the most part, a lot of what’s streaming legally is still intended for the same crowd they’ve always had, the ones who are already familiar with anime and would have bought the DVDs. It’s admirable that they’re starting to intelligently combat subbing, but what anime really needs is fresh blood, and they simply aren’t bringing that in as much as they used to.

  4. Sketch says:

    What do you mean by fresh blood? There’s a lot of new stuff all the time. So I’m assuming you mean unique shows and while those are few and far between and really always have been there is certainly a fair amount of variety yet to be tapped and more than a fair amount of variety available in the US.

    But no TV deals for this content means it’s little more than an obscurity on shelves at Best Buy that will likely be overlooked. And it isn’t as though companies don’t market enough. You see ads for anime in similar interest magazines and on a wide variety of media sites on the internet. But without the ease of watching a show on television just to try it out you’re losing a huge market.

    I would argue that while Crunchyroll, and FUNimation’s video player primarily target existing anime fans sites such as Hulu can do well to grow the audience beyond the current fanbase into a more general audience. Though in order to really gun for that casual audience I’d assume there would be more dubs and while One Piece for instance has dubs on Hulu, Naruto does not and that’s something that should be addressed if it can be. Disney XD’s site streams edited Naruto Shippuden but not very much of it at a time. If they wanted to take streaming on Hulu and other sites to that magical land of general audience acceptance they need their A grade titles in English. Casual audiences are much more accepting of dubbed content than subtitled content. Even so that audience is growing just as is and thankfully since it has no TV deal people can find dubbed (and subbed) One Piece on Hulu. Since they have TV deals Bleach, Naruto, Inuyasha, FMA, Dragon Ball Z Kai, etc. aren’t really hurting for a lack of an uncensored English dub stream.

  5. chdr says:

    Fresh blood as in viewers. A big problem for the anime industry is that the generation that grew up on DBZ is starting to grow old and less profitable, and the industry currently isn’t attracting as big a crowd to replace them.

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