The State of the Anime World 2004: Of Mice, Men, and Mobile Suits
There has never been a better time to be an anime fan in the West than right now.
Although that seems like an arrogant statement, it's true. The floodgates have opened, and we are living in a virtual anime paradise. Apart from living in Japan and having access to anime firsthand, you couldn't get much better. In fact, when you take into account the fact that Japan is one of the most expensive places in the world, one could make the argument that, perhaps, it's even better to be a fan in the West now than it is to be one in Japan!
When I first got into this hobby almost twenty years ago, I had no idea where it was going. Back in 1985, I was simply a kid about to enter middle school, unaware of what I would find in my local comic book store. But soon thereafter, a copy of Robotech: The Macross Saga #4 found its way into my stack of books, and I've not been the same since.
Surprisingly, though, there have been many things that haven't changed over time. Since the mid 1980s, there have been certain known truths that haven't been broken. However, I'm pleased to say that many of them have recently gone out the window. The fact that the unspoken "rules of the game" have quickly been discarded is a welcome sign. Here's my take on what's happened to shape the anime world in 2003 in terms of the broken rules...
Anime distribution is no longer a second-tier business. When Disney bought up the rights to release the Studio Ghibli catalog a few years back, there wasn't much talk, especially since it took them such a long time to get that catalog in motion. Now that they have, however, they've paved the way for other major studios to follow suit. The Academy Award win for Spirited Away may not have spelled tons of money for the mouse outfit up front, but the collateral in terms of awareness for the rest of Miyazaki's catalog was huge. When it became clear that anime could be profitable for the major studios' home divisions, they started getting involved. Dreamworks and Columbia Tri-Star have hopped into the game full speed ahead, and their success may very well lead to more majors getting into the anime business.
No anime title is too big to be released in the US. For years and years, the film Memories languished in the dark, anguished corners of the otaku mind. After the roaring success of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, there was the thought that his next major film should be worth a lot of money to its distributor'so much, in fact, that the typical studios releasing anime in the US couldn't afford it. Tie that amazing price tag to a movie that's much more cerebral and difficult to market than its predecessor, and you have a film in what everyone expected was permanent limbo. Thankfully, Columbia Tri-Star made some sort of deal, and Memories is now on DVD in the West. Now that the major studios are involved, the highest quality films will almost certainly be released here eventually...maybe not today, but tomorrow.
No anime title is too small, too old, or too obscure to find in the US. A title's age could often make or break a deal for its distribution in the US. Unless it was incredibly popular, any show made before 1988 or so was destined for the trash heap. Now, we're seeing two trends. First, titles with basic name recognition that are older are getting releases. For example, the release of the original Mobile Suit Gundam series is nothing short of incredible. It may be a seminal title, but with its frankly poor animation, it would not be a typical pull apart from the name. But after twenty-five some odd years, it's nice to see. Meanwhile, the advent of Bit Torrent has made collecting long-forgotten shows a breeze. Though my wife is not an anime fan, she is an Anne of Green Gables fan. Being able to download that entire TV series from the late 1970s, which I'd discussed with her for years but had no hope of finding, was a stunning coup d'état. The ability to get material that's been nothing more than a collector's fever dream is amazing, and it's growing.
DVD has made the sub/dub debate meaningless--at the same time that dubs are becoming great. Although the discussion still rages in certain circles as to the purity of watching shows in the original language, the point is all but moot. Almost every title comes both subtitled and dubbed on DVD, so the viewer has the choice. I encourage both sides to take a look at the other for a little bit, because both are valid. And, for the sub fan (like myself), I can safely say that dubbing is finally coming into its own. After watching Cowboy Bebop: The Movie in the theatre, I realized that I liked the dub cast better and watched the whole show again with the dub cast. Sure, there are still travesties like the release of Initial D with a rewritten mess of a dub, but they are becoming a much smaller part of the industry.
All of these new developments are a great encouragement to an old fan, and I'm grateful for these changes. But what else is on the horizon or already in our midst, for good or for bad?
The Good Stuff:
Fans coming into the hobby right now can hit the ground running--if they can stand VHS. OK, so VHS is no longer in fashion. It doesn't look as good as DVD, no question. But look at the selection you can get at RightStuf for 99 cents right now! We're not talking just about no-name OVAs; we're talking about seriously popular titles like Rurouni Kenshin. They will eventually sell out, and there won't be more coming, since VHS is all but dead in terms of new production. But head to any Half Price Books and you'll find a healthy selection of used anime tapes at basement prices. Many folks have justified piracy based on anime being too expensive...but that answer is out the window. The exact title you want might cost money, but if you are looking to sample the whole of the anime world, it's cheaper than any other hobby I can think of. Until the flood of virtually free tapes ends, ride the wave, baby.
NetFlix is the poor otaku's dream. So much for having to afford a huge series on DVD! With its friendly service and reasonable $20 price point, NetFlix is the perfect way to get anime that might not be worth buying but that's worth seeing. With their growing commitment to stocking entire series and making them easy to place an entire run as a group into your "queue", it's a great solution to the money problems. Let's face it, you can rent six or more discs a month for the same cost it would take to buy just one. It's a good bargain that's much more reliable than the corner video store that carries maybe ten anime DVDs total. And if you do like a series enough to invest in the discs, by the time you've rented them all, the show will likely be at a lower price point. Once again, you win.
TV series are here to stay. There has been a sea of change in the thinking about television shows. Back when VHS was king, the thought was that movies and OVAs were the best way to go. Who would buy an entire television series, especially released two episodes a tape like Evangelion was? It took up too much space and cost too much money for anything but the very best shows. DVD has changed all of that. Now, the realization comes that a fan of a movie will only buy one disc, but a fan of a TV show might buy six discs spread out over the course of a year. Combine that with much lower production costs for DVDs, growing placement on TV, and the ability to pack in lots of bonus content, and what do you get? Instant job security for the distributors! It's still expensive to buy TV series, which is a concern for many of us. However, the patient can usually get significant savings on boxed sets and package deals. At any rate, the market for anime TV shows is now significantly greater than that for films, which is a relatively new development.
BitTorrent and its ilk are the future--if fans will stop sharing illegally. I'm strongly against Bit Torrent as a way to illegally trade licensed shows. The growing number of rips from US releases showing up on warez sites and Kazaa could cause an eventual crackdown that would stifle all file-sharing...which is a development I can only hope won't happen. That's because BitTorrent is inspired. As a tool for sharing files, I don't know of its equal. The anime community has really grown to love it and support it, and now it provides said community with material it would never see otherwise. The aforementioned Anne of Green Gables is as likely to get an official US release as Ben Stiller becoming president. But because of BitTorrent, I was able to get the entire series quickly and easily.
For a couple of years now, digisubs have replaced VHS tapes as the traders' medium of choice, and BitTorrent is the perfect distribution method. It also dispenses with the most suspect part of fansubbing--money trading hands for illegal tapes sent in return. Is file sharing like this legal? Under the exacting scrutiny of current copyright law, no. But the companies involved both in America and Japan have turned a blind eye to it, giving tacit acceptance to the sharing of unlicensed shows. It's much like bands like Phish giving fans permission to tape live shows as long as they don't profit from them. It is thus incredibly important for the anime community to combat piracy--the sharing of properties with US distributors--by discouraging it at every turn and reporting breaches to the companies who are affected. And as painful as it is, if you own a fansub of a show available in the US, unless you own a copy of the American release, you are obligated to destroy it. The more you support the growth of anime, the less expensive it will be for everyone.
The Bad Stuff:
With the glut of anime on the market and more coming out in droves, it will still be possible to have an overall knowledge of anime, but it will be impossible to see (let alone collect) everything available. Back when Streamline Pictures was the only anime distributor around, it was not only possible but also feasible to own every anime title on the US market. Today, there are more releases in a week than we saw in an entire year just a decade ago. Although the staff at an anime magazine might be able to watch most of what comes out, it would take the better part of a 40-hour week many times throughout the year to get through all the new releases. Even the amazing Chris Beveridge over at AnimeOnDVD.com, known at one time for purchasing every disc released, has started farming out discs to other reviewers to make sure all the latest titles get coverage. The good news is that fans of specific genres of anime will have even more to watch than ever before. The bad news is that those of us who attempt to follow everything in the anime world will have to be content with knowing that our hobby has gained massive popularity without seeing every last minute available.
With all the new releases, there's still an amazing amount of junk. My job as anime reviewer is certainly safe for the foreseeable future, which in some ways great and other ways disappointing. I would rather see less anime on the shelves but all of it high quality. This isn't going to happen, but it is my wish. There's always room for opinion and interpretation, of course, but with the tsunami of anime reaching the West, a good chunk of it is stunningly terrible by any standard. Part of this is due to the whole licensing game. Bad anime doesn't do well in Japan either; to make up for their losses, the Japanese filmmakers are willing to try and recoup their costs through making the shows available at attractive prices to distributors. Even truly awful anime like Ninja Resurrection can wind up making a significant profit for the US distributors, more so than some brilliant series that are hard to market. The one bright spot is that the stream of bad one-shot OVAs has slowed down, giving an old reviewer some comfort.
Fandom is irrelevant and dangerous. Long live fandom! Now there are some people who will scream and holler at this statement. It's true that fandom is alive and well and being paraded out at a cosplay contest somewhere in the country this (and every other) weekend. And what's more, fandom has done some incredible things in the past. It's gotten companies to realize that a DVD must be both subbed and dubbed, period. It's fought for the integrity of programs, making the slash-and-burn editing of the past virtually unheard of today. And without it over the last twenty years, you wouldn't have anime today.
That being said, fandom is doing a lot more harm than good now. Outcry from fandom over the placement of openings and closings on every episode of Kimagure Orange Road, an issue I find virtually meaningless, led AnimEigo to a costly decision that will keep it in the boutique niche for the time being, and perhaps permanently. Otaku subbers still insist on making available shows like the new Ghost in the Shell series even though they are a lock for US distribution. The embarrassing actions of a small minority of cosplayers often make for conventions that are frustrating rather than exhilarating, and poorly run and organized events tend to push away fans rather than drawing them in. Obsessive aficionados complain loudly to networks that edit insignificant adult content out of shows, even though those networks are doing a wonderful service for the cause. The list of abuses go on and on.
Now this isn't saying that fans don't have an important voice, or that certain issues aren't important. I think it's good to know, for example, that the current release of His and Her Circumstances is missing a couple of scenes found on the Japanese DVD, and that those scenes may be released later in a special edition. It's another thing entirely to boycott the series and the distribution company and illegally download fansubs because of it; that's just insanity. If the antics keep up, many companies will dismiss the fans as out of touch with reality and regress in their policies.
In other words, those of you who feel you have the right to berate, belittle, attack, and demean others in the anime community, stop it. Those of you who are over 13 who act like little children whenever you get around others and talk about anime, stop it. Those of you who are part of the problem, stop it. Stop it, stop it, stop it.
Sorry to say it, but the "next wave" hasn't been found yet. The last huge phenomenon in anime was Neon Genesis Evangelion, and that cash cow has just about run out of milk. Its many and varied clones are running on empty, as well. (I'm not counting Dragonball Z since it appeals to a very different audience and is technically older than EVA. And though Rurouni Kenshin is much loved, it's still not the same.) It's not every day that a show comes out and becomes a sudden classic like Gundam, Macross, or EVA. Although there's plenty of good material coming out of Japan, much of it is dross. If you're a fan who's never watched any shows from the 1980s, you are missing what most long-time devotees consider the golden age of anime. Don't wait for the next gorgeous show to come out and knock you sideways. There's tons of good stuff waiting for you to discover it. We're working at The Anime Review on some new aids to help you find the reviews of the shows we consider top-notch. Branch out a little and discover the old landmarks.
All that being said, let me share a little story with you. Back in 1988, when I got into the hobby full force, I picked up a guide to Japanese animation. It was actually a program booklet for an anime convention that had been put together so professionally that it was easily sellable. My goal at the time was to see everything in that guide eventually. Just a few weeks ago, I got that booklet out for the first time in perhaps five years. When I looked through it, I realized that I'd seen virtually 99% of the programs that had been listed. At the time, it seemed like the Holy Grail, describing wonders I could only imagine seeing. Now, it seems almost quaint. The world of anime in America has grown to a phenomenon that shows no sign of slowing down.
It's been a long strange trip...and I've been glad to be around for the ride. As we celebrate our fifth anniversary as an active web site, I look forward to many more years of service that The Anime Review will provide. Though there are doubtless more changes to come, both good and bad, for the anime industry, no one can take away the fundamentals: beautiful artwork, beautiful storytelling, and beautiful characters that somehow break through the walls of unreality and become a part of our lives. It's the universal truths beneath the cel paint that move me and make this a truly great hobby.