US TV and anime: innovation and degeneration

When I became an anime fan in 2003 what appealed to me (perhaps more than anything else) were serial stories (like Naruto – my first fansubbed anime) with gradually developed characters; personalities that could grow from despicable bastards to likable rogues, or fall from grace to become evil incarnate. At the same time American TV (at least in my eyes) was largely episodic; characters never changed and the story would often reset to zero at the beginning of every episode. You knew someone was the hero, you knew that they had to win, and that was that; predictable, plastic and boring.

Lately I’ve found myself watching more US TV though. Lost, Heroes and especially Battlestar Galactica – I’m now anticipating these shows as much as I am an average episode of Death Note or Black Lagoon. Back when I became an anime fan I genuinely believed the genre was an untouchable world-class art form, unparrelled in its ability to “bring out the fanboy” inside of me. Three years on and I’m starting to change my tune.

I’ve mentioned three US TV shows in the above paragraph – all three offer serial stories that depend on development of character as much as ridiculous eye candy. Like it is with a lot of anime, you go on a journey with the characters, watch them fail, struggle and succeed. This “back to basics” approach has really snagged my interest.

It’s almost embarrassing to compare these shows with today’s anime. Although you get the occasional attempt at mature story telling (Naoki Urasawa’s MONSTER being a prime example), anime is almost exclusively devoted to a bunch of high school kids running around doing “stuff”. Once you’ve sat through 3 years worth of anime, got bored of the spunky girl, smooth bishounen and brooding anti-hero, the love triangles and angsty mecha pilots, the genre starts to fade. The creativity is consigned to demographics, the characters have become predictable. There is very little new or exciting to experience, anime just feels boring. Perhaps now that I’m a little older, I’m just losing interest in following annoying teenage characters I have nothing in common with.

I started writing this article to compare US TV with anime, but now I’m wondering whether or not anime is getting progressively worse. Perhaps the new generation of directors and writers were anime fans themselves, so are now stuck emulating their favourites and doomed to produce a load of generic fan pandering nonsense. These days anime is even being remade; who needs creativity and innovation when you can just re-animate something from a few years ago? At least wait 10 years to revive your failing franchise, not even Hollywood is that bad!

I don’t think I could call myself an anime fan anymore, such a broad title suggests I will enjoy and support anything to do with anime. Clearly that’s no longer the case. Anime has its ups and downs, and I think it’s falling right now, stuck in a degenerative inbreeding loop of fan service and demographics. When Kujibiki Unbalance is chosen over Genshiken, something is terribly wrong.

Author: bateszi

A huge bloody nerd. I apologise in advance. I live in Cambridge, England. That's not an excuse, by the way.

27 thoughts on “US TV and anime: innovation and degeneration”

  1. Similar thoughts have been floating around in my head, too.

    Just a quick look at the fall ’06 season sheds a light on the current situation of the anime industry: From the 50+ new shows that had started, I watched the first episodes of around 20 (the rest were discarded after looking at the anidb blurb or the title). Now, I’m still watching four series out of that twenty.

    The overwhelming majority of these titles were re-iterations or variations of old cliches (for example: harem, magic schoolgirls, boys entering fight schools), and most of them were boring and almost insultingly uninspired.

    Compared to this swamp of mediocrity, some of the recent examples of American TV series (like 24, Lost, Heroes or Dexter) really represent a welcome change.
    I have became a fan of Heroes myself (I like the clever writing, the witty dialogue, and above all the sense of self-irony and the cheesy style of superhero comics – they parodise and glorify them at the same time), and I had to admit with a little sadness that such a series could not have been made in Japan, as an anime.

    Not all is lost for an anime fan, however.
    Even though I too had to abandon the concept that anime is a form of art _inherently_ better than everything else in existence, I still maintain that anime _can be_ a form of art, capable of expressing a complex and valid statement about the world just as any other medium.
    As long as there are shows like the recently ended Kemonozume or the still running Welcome to NHK, I think I’ll find something to watch.

  2. "I think it’s falling right now, stuck in a degenerative inbreeding loop of fan service and demographics."

    Yeah, I think thats pretty much it with anime at the moment. There is precious little new or innovative currently.

    Thats not to say that rehashes are particularly bad – there is always room to improve on something, and I do think there is a gradual increase in quality despite all the inbreeding. Unfortuately, this isn’t occuring in the kinds of shows I like (i.e. there are way too many bishojou anime). Thats more my problem I guess, but I think the reason I’m finding a lot of anime hard to get into at the moment isn’t that its bad, more that there aren’t really all that many of the kind of shows I actually enjoy being made at the moment. Then there is the fact that those being made in genres I do enjoy are frame-by-frame adaptations of manga I’ve already read ^^;

  3. In an old interview with Yoshiyuki Tomino when a question was something along the lines of "How do I get into directing anime" or similar, he said "Don’t watch it." I guess what is happening now is when you don’t listen to your elder’s advice.

  4. Hmm, I guess it helps here that I’ve never thought that anime was intrinsically better than any other medium. Sure, the majority of anime that’s produced is rubbish, but that seems to have always been the case – just that nowadays, not only is more stuff getting made, more stuff is also becoming available to us over here.
    I can’t really comment on the state of TV programmes much, even if I had the motivation to do so I wouldn’t be able to wrest control away from my housemates to change over from non-stop reality TV, quizzes and soaps. So from my limited perspective it only seems like TV is getting worse :P
    Granted, I’m not interested in a lot of the shows this new season, but as long as they’re still making series like Asatte no Houkou I’ll keep watching anime.

  5. I agree with your post almost 100%. When I was in college, and had nothing to do, a few years ago, I loved anime just for the same reasons you had mentioned, but now most of the stories are just too similar or are ruined by ridiculous fanservice .

    But other than the few shows you mentioned like 24, Lost, Heroes, and Battlestar, nothing else really catches my interest in American tv either. I guess when I first started watching, not knowing much about anime in general, everything was new to me, but now having watched so much, almost everything feels similar, and only a few shows really catch my eye.

    I do have to say though that even though I have a job and all I still make time at least once a week to watch all of the shows I’ve downloaded, so doesn’t look like I’ll stop anytime soon!

  6. I think what you’re experiencing is Sturgeon’s Revelation: "Ninety percent of everything is crud."

    For a budding anime fan, they see in anime what’s different from their own television shows. Focusing on that, it’s easy to gloss over the failings/ruts that 90% of anime suffers from until we’re used to it.

    Also, when we’re first introduced to the medium, or when we only have limited time to experience it, we tend to focus on the best examples from it. Imagine if you introduced a foreign person to American live-action TV by showing them Heroes, Lost and 24, then covering the history of American television by showing them The Beverly Hillbillies, Mork and Mindy, Taxi, the A-Team, Frasier, Cheers, and Friends, they might very well be excited about American television! We know the truth, of course: 90% of American TV is crud filled with formulaic plots and cookie-cutter, predictable characters, but there have been gems along the way.

    Thus it is with anime. Between our desensitization, maturing taste, progression through the back-catalog of good shows, and the increase in the number of shows imported by fansubbing, we get to see Japanese TV for what it is: 90% crap, just like everywhere else.

    But between the 10% from Japan, the 10% of the US, and the 10% of everywhere else, I stay very entertained.

    As the number of available shows increases, picking out the good ones become harder. I’m thinking of making a cataloging web app for people to keep track of what they’ve watched and enjoyed so they can have other shows recommended.

  7. Interesting that you choose an image of Millais from Code Geass to represent the ‘degeneration’. Was it the pizza or the GSD similarities that vexed you?

    I don’t think anime is any more degenerative than it has been for the last three years. We have the likes of Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto, Kemonozume, Chevalier, Bartender, Red Garden and Hataraki Man delivering innovation to counter the commercial.

    Whilst I don’t think Code Geass is a masterpiece it is a slick form of well-made entertainment, the 2 dimensional equivalent of a Hollywood movie that is at least fun to watch, even if it isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff.

  8. Anime has always been fairly derivative, I’ve been watching anime on and off for over 15 years now and this fact is undeniable once I take off my rose-colored glasses. Spunky teenagers saving the world, magical school-girls and brightly colored mechs have been around for far longer then three years.. I find it useful to take a break from anime, after a few months/years hiatus all the old cliches are new again.. at least for a while.

  9. I have only been watching anime for about 5 years, and everything seemed so good back then, but I can agree that the majority of shows now are just garbage. It could be they are running out of ideas or maybe my tastes are just changing but it’s just not as exciting as it used to be for me. Maybe I should take a break as Kite said, and start over from a fresher perspective, but I doubt I will, because as much as I complain, I have more than enough anime to keep me busy!

  10. I’ve started watching anime at roughly the same time as you, and although I recognize the fact that a lot of anime are just fodder, I still prefer watching it over any other medium. Shows like LOST never got to to me, because I somehow knew they would never end if they kept on getting money for the producers. Shows like Asatte no Houkou, or Tsukihime for that matter, however, end whether it gets the producers rich or not. I admire great anime for their terseness and conclusion; I guess watching most of those 10% is enough to drive me forward. (Incidentally, I’m more or less watching five series right now.)

    As far as I’m concerned … TV has gotten worse for me. Anime has stayed constant, and with the appearances of masterpieces sometimes deliver enough for me.

  11. Michael has a good point.

    One of the primary differences betweenmost American TV shows and many Japanese TV shows is their "mission statement".

    American TV shows have typically been formed by saying "What formula can we use that will make as many people watch for as long as possible?".

    Japanese media is no stranger to this concept, but it’s been more willing to embrace "stories", which have a definite end, as well. Still, the "let’s keep them watching" concept has hurt many shows as they are dragged out and expanded. And, of course many short shows are formulaic viewer-pandering as it is.

    The same can be said of American comics versus Japanese comics.

  12. *wheee I can post again* :D

    Regular TV has always been a great medium for storytelling, and it’s always had it’s gems out there there (Joss Whedon’s shows are the first I noticed, but they were going before that of course).. although it really took 24 and Lost’s popularity (the later which I happen to think is largely undeserved, compared to other shows) to make network bigwigs realize that they can make money off it.

    Meanwhile, HBO regularly has great shows with continuing arcs like The Wire, Deadwood, and Carnivale passing through it’s airwaves.. something that cable has always been able to pull off, because they’re not so governed by ratings and can afford to rerun episodes more often than networks.

    It all depends where you’re looking. Because while us blogger may be the sort to dl the first episode of every new anime and give it a try, I imagine most of us don’t do the same for regular TV, and instead just flick over and see Fishing With The Stars followed by Law & Order: When Will It Ever End?and go "all TV sux0rs!~"

    However, while I generally prefer the quality of storytelling from TV I watch, very little of it appeals to my inner geek "ZOMG AWESOME" fetishes.. which anime is always eager to do, because stereotype and cliches = MONIEZ in this industry :)

    So yeah, I think they could both borrow things from the other.

    (also, keep in mind that TV gets the luxury of a 44 minutes+ to work with)

  13. As for me, yes there seems to be a lot of crap these days, but I have avoided oversaturation with the wise decision of dropping shows that don’t interest me anymore and avoiding those genres I don’t like in the first place. As Kite said, taking a break from anime helps you recuperate from the boredom of the shows–but only temporarily.

    Although I haven’t been watching TV regularly the past two years because of anime, when I do get bored, thank God there’s Battlestar Galactica to look forward to. And then there’s CSI, Desperate Housewives, those Koreanovelas…

  14. Wow, many of you have really good points on why, I think at least, that most anime is better than most shows in the US. I never really thought about how most anime shows have a predetermined amount of episodes, while US shows sole goal really is to gain as many viewers as possible and keep showing it until people stop watching.

    Personally, even though most current shows are "cookie cutter" like someone before me mentioned, there are still gems like Monster (still waiting for 20th Century Boys to be animated). I mean, I still watch average shows like Naruto (end the fillers!), Bleach, and One Piece, and I know they are usually aimed at a younger demographic, but I still find them quite enjoyable compared to a lot of things found in the US. I will probably continue to watch as long as it keeps me interested, and it seems that will last for a long time still.

  15. Ah, I really feel like you read my mind sometimes, Batezsi. Everytime I’m on a certain train of thought, you’ve got something similar running through your head, or you’ve already written a post on something I was considering.

    I’ve been an anime fan for over ten years now, and having gone through all the crud, I think I’m officially over my "love affair" with the art form. It really became obvious to me when I couldn’t even stand to sit through two episodes of Pumpkin Scissors that my intrinsic love for anime has faded. I think it’s just as well, as I need to concentrate on other things, and I think that the ability to stop watching the shows that, well…just suck…is a sign of maturity. It shows that you’re able to not only distinguish between what’s good and bad, but to choose what’s good rather than simply letting the fanboy mentality take over and drive your watching habits.

    In fact, I’m probably going to have to change the focus of my blog soon. I can no longer drive the blog based on anime alone, and my love for it, as I’ve found myself drifting farther and farther from it.

    Your comments on American TV are great. It’s so true that recently American TV has seen an influx of amazing shows, between 24, Lost, Heroes and Battlestar Galactica (the last being a personal favorite). Somehow TV has become fun to watch again, and anime is not the sole contributor to my entertainment and artistic needs.

    Finally, Mac’s quote about the 90% rule is so true, and that’s what keeps me from being able to constrain myself specifically to anime, and what will probably drive me to include more things in my blog than just anime.

    Anyhow, enough soap-box comments – great post, about a very real fact.

  16. Same here. I personally think anime are getting worst (yes, I know some interesting anime are still produced sometimes). I’m not the fan I used to be, and I’ve been a fan since 1993, when I was 11 years old and anime were often aired on french TV.

    I’m definitely enjoying american TV shows (especially HBO’s Rome) and I even think "Avatar the last airbender" (the popular cartoon) is far superior than any anime I’m watching now. Yes, I went there :D

    Anyway, great post, though I don’t understand why you chose to post an image of Code Geass (a semi-original and at least entertaining anime imo)…In my case, those numerous harem, games or novels adaptations and remakes are those putting me off.

  17. I totally agree with Bateszi. It’s almost like you read my mind thought for thought. Anime’s image is quickly deteriorating, (is that how you spell it?) but compared to american animation it’s still way better in my opinion. All the love triangle,pentagons,panty shots,jiggling breasts are becoming tiresome. After all, anime is supposed to be fun animated entertainment, not animated porno. I agree that directors try to relive their favorites by remaking anime series based on the same plots until everything becomes cliche.

  18. Code Geass is the result of decades worth of inbreeding. I would use a more potent example, but I simply won’t touch harem/bishoujo/loli/whatever-fetish anime with a 10ft barge pole (and that includes Kanon; a show that for me is thoroughly abhorrent and indicative of the sorry state we now find ourselves mired in. Anyone want to bet when Love Hina gets remade?). I’m watching and actually quite enjoying Code Geass, but deep down I think we all know it’s total crap. Watching it makes me feel dirty. Pumpkin Scissors is the same.

    I’m not really seeing any show right now that has potential to break out of anime fandom. In 2006 Kemonozume and Mushishi are probably the only shows I think I could stick on TV and not feel embarrassed about watching, everything else is limited to the prerequisite of being an anime fan. And that’s because anime fans have bad taste, often blinded by their weird preferences for, lets say, little girls eating fish shaped waffles ;o)

    Comparing this season’s anime to Battlestar Gallactica, Lost, Heroes… there is just no competition. I love how Japanese artists can blend sophisticated and complex themes into their animation, but it mostly isn’t happening right now. Even Death Note – the supposedly "clever" anime of the season, is just frustratingly blunt. Light abuses power, Light loses mind, Light eventually collapses. Great power corrupts greatly. What ever happened to shades of gray, subtlety of themes?

    I don’t know – like most of you have already said, anime has always been 90% crap, so perhaps I shouldn’t be expecting such high standards. But still something just feels wrong at the moment- the truth is that there is nothing airing right now that is essential; nothing that makes me want to rip my heart out and stick it on this blog. I’ve always had a Gankutsuou, a Mushishi or a Monster – now there is nothing.

  19. I’ve been watching anime since I was 3 years old starting out with things like Remi (which was way to depressing for a kid that age), Maya the Bee, Captain Herlock, Meitantei Holmes and the like. There’s only one great change that I can put my finger on that is present today and was lacking through the late 80s’ and 90s’: Moé.

    It’s been around for a long time but I find that as soon as you could coin a word to this phenomenon and it materialized into a specific, identifiable and marketable category and that animators, designers and directors began to specifically implement it into shows to push more product, anime starting going downhill. There isn’t a show today where I don’t see the presence of a moé character. Of course, there were characters in the past that were made for you to fall in love with, but none of them were specifically designed to cater to fanboy wet dreams. There’s is too much of this endowed childhood friend, maid with guns, tsundere, bandaged catgirl with amnesia, little sister with glasses incest crap going around and good stories with engaging drama, comedy, and heartfelt moments are taking a back seat to it.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t a couple gems buried under all the harem, but they’re too hard to find and it takes too long for them to come around. By the time you find one you’re already too sick of it all to even try it, like finding the most delicious dessert imaginable yet you’re too full to eat it. In the end taking a bite only makes you want to throw up.

  20. It’s something I’ve always been aware of for as long as I’ve been a fan…my personal view is that a large majority is indeed generic and not in the least bit outstanding, with only a few shining stars to keep our interest. But isn’t any entertainment industry – be it anime, UK or even US – the same? For every new and exciting show there are a number I can’t be bothered with!

    Sometimes, there’s something that revives your faith and I think that’s what you (and a lot of us) need now. Last weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Satoshi Kon’s new movie Paprika. It’s bold, imaginative, thought-provoking and superbly put together; a rare sight sadly but just the sort of thing that reminds me why I became a fan in the first place. Holding on for the Paprikas, Mushishis and Monsters is always worth the wait in the end.

  21. By and large it seems to be the case that anime’s getting worse, but you only need to pick and choose the few gems that come about every season (and of course the back catalogue of dvd releases over the years). Considering this past year I’ve decreased in my anime viewing due to more committments, it actually suits me that there aren’t an overwhelming amount of top-knotch shows coming out every season.

  22. I think a lot of it has to do with overexposure; if you’re watching every other new show coming out of Japan odds are you’re going to come across a lot of boring, generic twaddle. The same, however, could be said for any kind of TV, be it British or American. I went through a similar crisis when the first season of Lost aired, thinking it to be far more sophisticated than just about any anime I’d seen up to that point, but my appetite for anime returned and I soon realised just how wrong, not to mention narrow-minded, that assumption was. I find it’s best to ignore the current trends, fads, whatever, and just actively go out and search for series that will interest/inspire you.

  23. You almost had me with your logic, Bateszi. While I do not particulary like Lost, Heroes, or Battlestar Galactica, I suppose I can see their merit.

    There is _very_ large amount of terrible shows on American television, however. Which, by comparison, makes almost any anime compared to it absolute gold.

    What about "So Think You Can Dance?" – does that show have any value? I would say not. What about "Flavor of Love"? That is also terrible. What about "Wife Swap"? It is an insult to _anyone’s_ intelligence.

    What about "Deal or no Deal"? Certainly that is the most idiotic gameshow I have seen, even including many gameshows from decades past (which were quite terrible themselves).

    Then there is "The Tyra Banks Show" – have you _seen_ it? If you have, I do not have to elaborate on how much of a farce it is.

    "Inside Edition" – can get all of your celebrity "news" there… yeah… "news"… I do not need to say more.

    Ok, so, I covered reality-television, game shows, talk shows, and celebrity "news" shows. But, what about a show with actual writers?

    "Ghost Whisperer" tries to have a story, but… it is less about the story and more about staring at the main actresses’s breasts. The writing attempts to be deep, but winds up being superficial. So many times it cuts to her changing just so that you can see her just wearing a bra.
    I would not consider it any better than your average fanservice show.

    There is also "One Tree Hill" and "The OC" – both are extremely superficial and have the most simple and obvious plot elements to force anything that might even remotely be called "character development".

    And there has been a recent rash of dime-store forensics and medical shows – most of which are just copies of each other, only offering different artificial relationships between slightly different characters. These are becoming the harem-genre of American television very quickly.

    "Phil of the Future", "The Suite Life of Zack of and Cody", "That’s So Raven", "Hannah Montanna" – all on The Disney Channel, are completely inane, and I would not allow a two-year-old to watch them for fear for mental retardation. They are complete garbage.

    I would consider over 90% of American television completely unwatchable, with the rest left up to personal tastes. So, I think, at best, you could _try_ to claim that American television is equal to the quality of anime, but I would not go anywhere near that far considering the extremely sharp increase in poorly-made reality-teleivision shows – which must make up someting like 50% of all programming.
    Not that all anime is perfect, but I find it, on the whole, much more tolerable than American television (Except a very few select shows).

  24. Im’ an Anime follower since Astroboy or Candy Candy, and I can said that I like much more the anime than series like Lost, 24 or anything else, not all the anime is good, I know it, but there are really good series of any genre. For example: Ouran High School, has the classic background tale of Cinderella but is just so funny! It has no lots of romance but lots of fun, nice drawing, and really funny characters. I enjoyed that anime. Monster is a really great piece of art, since it keeps away from the usual drawing of the anime, Death Note has an incredibly work on characters personality, I never liked Mechas, so I don’t really care about it.

    How can you speak about repetition in Anime while comparing it to US tv Shows??? XDDD :S

    And what to say about Ghibli Studio that for me keeps making the most wonderful animated movies.

  25. Ha, I’ve always known that 90% of it was garbage. What keeps me going is the knowledge that there are things about anime which potentially make it much better than anything on TV. There will never be a U.S. tv show that will match the stature of Eva or Now and Then Here and There or even something more recent like Elfen Lied. Look at Berserk. Far superior to any attempt at a medievel drama I’ve seen.

    I think part of it is with animation you don’t really have to worry about bad acting just bad writing. Plus since none of it is real you can’t be dissappointed by cheap special effects. In other words you can have unrealistic scenes that would most likely look ridiculous live action.

    I also agree with bateszi about Kanon. Decadence to the point of decay. Even my 15 year old brother could recognise that it was crap three episodes in. Its level of popularity even among fans over 20 makes me think I’m living in some kind of alternate reality where no one can see that it’s garbage but me.

  26. Anime hasn’t changed, at least not much. YOU have.

    You probably got into anime by viewing some of the more commerical, obvious releases which had already gained some level of mainstream success. Then you started seeking out other anime, and you’ve belatedly realized that most anime, like most other artforms, is … crap.

    You are also getting older and have realized that much anime is indeed made for children, despite supposedly "adult" themes. What used to seem "edgy" to you or mature simply because it had nudity and violence, now just seems pornographic, excessive, and in the case of much anime’s treatment of women and young girls, downright creepy.

    But don’t despair. Although most anime is indeed childish or immature drivel, anime is NOT a genre. Any more than a film shot in 35mm is a genre. Anime is an artform, a style, a method, an approach, all of the above. Within anime, there is dross and jewels alike. (But mostly dross.)

    Remember, if everyone was like Miyazaki, his movies wouldn’t be too special! The price to pay for having such artistic excellence as Ghibli is also having an industry packed with Love Hina and Gundam clones.

  27. as long there are masterpiece like naruto bleach slamdunk berserk evangelion hunterxhunter fma deathnote onepiece OuranHighSchoolHostClub fullmetapanictsr
    HajimeNoIppo escaflowne GTO hellsing paranoiaagent andmore i will keep watching i didnt find any other tv series which is better it is fact that there are alot of anime garbage
    but there are masterpieces which surpass any other
    and there is the also love of animation itself for me at least anime is the best thing happened in my life

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