The future of anime (is bleak?)

Will the people inspired to create the anime of tomorrow want to create another K-ON? Or another Cowboy Bebop?

If you haven’t already, I urge you to read this recent discussion with anime “storywriter” Dai Sato. He’s pissed off with the current state of anime and you should care because he created Eureka Seven and Ergo Proxy, as well as contributing to, amongst others, Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Wolf’s Rain and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Sato‘s complaints hone in on two separate areas, the first of which concerns how the production of anime is being increasingly out-sourced to cheap labour in neighbouring Asian countries, but more fascinating to me are his latter comments on the quality of story-telling in anime (or, indeed, the lack there-of.)

“Sato was upset with the lack of respect for stories in Japan. He pointed out that “Ergo Proxy,” for which he wrote the story, had DVD box sets around the world, but not in Japan. He also said that many anime fans dismissed “Eureka Seven” as a “Neon Genesis Evangelion” clone without even watching it. The story, setting and characters are totally different, but snap judgments were made based on images of a mysterious blue-haired girl with red eyes piloting a giant robot (both Ayanami Rei and Eureka fit the description). He wondered how much anime fans really are interested in close readings to generate information…” — Quote from the article in question.

Going into this, one should frame Sato‘s comments in the context that his two creations, Eureka Seven and Ergo Proxy, failed to capture large audiences in Japan; note that he compares Eureka Seven to Evangelion, as that is telling of the high hopes he had for it. As such, when he admits that “guys like him get no work,” one should keep in mind that Sato has already had chances to create anime in the past and is probably feeling a little bitter about those experiences. People are not going to keep throwing money at him, but that’s not to say it isn’t being put to good use elsewhere. Studio Bones produced a very (good) Eureka Seven-esque series in Xam’d: Lost Memories in 2008, while Ergo Proxy‘s animation studio, Manglobe, have animated both House of Five Leaves and Michiko to Hatchin in recent years, both of which are idiosyncratic and, well…, artistic and interesting.

It’s not my intention to discredit Sato‘s comments (I’m a big fan of almost everything he’s ever worked on,) but when he’s quoted as saying something like “anime will die out in Japan in a few decades,” it’s important to question any potential biases in his arguments. I’d love to know if he still watches anime? And, if so, what he made of The Tatami Galaxy and Durarara!!? (Questions likely to go unanswered.) He points to “atmosphere type” (kuuki-kei) anime (with K-On! specifically mentioned, as it so often is) as being the problem, but there’s no acknowledgement of the “difficult-type” (muzukashii-kei) work being done elsewhere.

Anyway, does he have a point? A cursory glance at this summer’s selection hardly inspires one’s confidence in the future of anime, but then, the summer and winter seasons have always seemed a waste land in comparison to the fertile crop of autumn and spring. Comparing anime from ten years ago to now reveals a very clear shift towards cute, slice of life escapism, but more of a concern for me is the continuing decline of the male role-model, the lack of which is a telling sign that something’s a little off, and, indeed, tells of an unhealthy lack of diversity in anime right now.

Will the people inspired to create the anime of tomorrow want to create another K-ON? Or another Cowboy Bebop? The former, I suspect, is what many young Japanese animators would kop to, and that’s what worries me most of all. When I look at these seasonal charts, I’m not looking for girls that look cute, but rather, for characters that look cool. I don’t want cute images to idolise; I want characters that inspire me with their actions. Holland, Renton and Eureka inspired me in Eureka Seven; Jet, Spike, Faye and Ed (plus Ein) inspired me in Cowboy Bebop. It will be the death of anime, for me, personally, when people like Dai Sato can’t get any work, but I’m still enjoying anime enough right now to know we’ve not hit rock bottom just yet.

What do you think?

Author: bateszi

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

23 thoughts on “The future of anime (is bleak?)”

  1. Maybe because I can enjoy the fluffy slice-of-life as well as the more hard-hitting shows (it depends on what mood I’m in, really) I’m a little more forgiving towards the recent drift that the industry has taken on…not that I’m not concerned for the ‘type’ of shows that drew me towards the medium. Ideally there should be room for all sorts – isn’t there a larger number of new series airing each season than ever before? – but my personal worry is the stifling of creativity in a rush to secure a ‘safe’ hit.

    Before going back to that point I think the outsourcing is a serious issue because it detracts from the consistency and ‘polish’ of the end product. Even worse, it’s potentially taking work away from domestic in-betweener animators who would otherwise be learning the craft from the ground up, rising in the ranks and forming the new crop of creators. The practice of outsourcing keeps the budget low in the short term but leads to a Brain Drain and a shortage of experienced artists in the long run. Poor old Goro Miyazaki didn’t take the long road on the shop floor like his dad did, and his resulting inexperience in helming Earthsea sadly showed.

    Back to the issue of what’s currently being produced, I’m still a huge admirer of muzukashii-kei titles, although Sato (albeit accidentally) diverted attention away from his main points by mentioning K-On!. I don’t think he was criticising it; it’s merely part of a trend towards series that are entertaining at the time but don’t have, say, really dramatic moments or storylines that require repeated viewings and discussions with fellow viewers to understand. There’s something about that show that makes people get all defensive, which has always struck me as weird because it doesn’t come up with anything controversial enough to need defending!

    For the record, KyoAni are actually a very good studio in terms of animation fluidity and artwork: the attention to detail in K-On! is actually dead-on with the musical instruments and so forth, and as a way of cheering myself up after a bad week it’s perfect. But utimately the likes of Eureka Seven, Kara no Kyoukai and the Sky Crawlers are the ones I’ll come back to again and again – it takes hard work and money to make a production that looks appealing (hence why I can admire KyoAni and their ilk), but Sato’s line of work demands a longer-term investment of time and effort that’s harder to replace.

  2. Japanese anime aren’t going to “die out”, but will probably keep splitting into “prime time” and “niche” categories unless the distribution models change. The generic, fluffy stuff like Railgun and Angel Beats will continue to be the cash cows, and so will probably continue to get the best production budgets.

    Shows that are artistic or actually trying.. they might grow in demand as the otaku population ages, but I doubt it as age has little to do with maturity. I’m sure the bulk of otakudom will still want to see middleschool anime about tsundere (or whatever the fad of the day is), so we’ll only see a couple of high-budget “serious” shows like we do now. We’ll continue to get half-assed production efforts like Bakemonogatari instead. Thankfully, as the tech improves I’m sure the budgets won’t need to be as high to give us decent quality animation, especially with a competent studio like Madhouse, Manglobe or Bones at the helm.

    So, what’s left is the non-Japanese anime. Maybe China and others will pick up the slack?

  3. Ultimately I think it’s going to end up being a pendulum swing. Like politics or popular music genres, anime goes through trends, and Sato — who apprenticed under Kawajiri and worked on great stuff in the late 80s/early 90s before going on to some respectable titles of his own — is seeing trends that he can’t identify with. Imagine being one of the metal bands of the 80s when Nirvana suddenly achieved widespread popularity. Hell, Sato had a longer run than they did!

    I think it’s fairly likely that 15 years down the road, anime will not be dead, but the people responsible for K-ON (to use his example) will declare it so — as they shake their heads at the current crop of cartoons featuring ultraviolent animation and complicated stories.

  4. The death of anime and manga as a whole?

    Dude, I’ve been told that I’m going to have to die for my faith, and that the world is quite literally, going to pieces because humanity IS doomed. Sato’s comments do not surprise me one bit.

    I’m unsurprised at the turn anime has taken, considering how anime in Japan is in an economic recession (much like the whole of Japan) and the need for survival is more important than art. Thus explaining the drift towards moe shows.

    And he never mentions the poor working conditions of anime studios, even those around the world. Which is more worrisome than anime dying out.

  5. @Martin

    The number of new anime series is now in decline year-on-year (since hitting an all time high in 2007, I think?) Which, I guess, tells its own story, but anyway, you make a good point about how the animation talent coming through Japan’s system must be stifled by the industry’s growing dependence on foreign production houses, which will have a direct, negative impact on the quality of anime in a very fundamental way, given that new blood is probably being discouraged from ever even getting involved in the first place.

    As for K-On, I suppose Sato’s beef is precisely that “it doesn’t come up with anything controversial enough.” Given that he’s all about social commentary and thought provoking stories, he’s probably disgusted that he’s essentially being made redundant by a bunch of series that essentially have nothing to say about anything.

    @deaky

    The article actually talks about how some in Japan’s anime industry are intentionally trying to prevent/discourage the studios in Korea and China from learning the creative processes, which is a farily stunning accusation to make when you think about it, but then, I suppose Japan is loathe to lose its cultural image/power… Anyway, like you, I’m interested to see what the other Asian countries eventually come up with, but let’s face it, if we’re talking about China and North Korea here, censorship and artists don’t exactly go hand in hand.

    @otou-san

    Out of interest, where to did find out that he apprenticed under Kawajiri? I love reading about the people involved in anime, but so much information fails to cross the language barrier.

    As for that last analogy, I’ll bring the time machine if you bring the pop-corn :)

    As much as it’s easy to lament what’s coming out now, at least we can cherish the anime made in the past, too. I’ve been rewatching Bebop this summer and, honestly, it’s foolish to expect anything as good as that every season, but I suppose the fun is in hoping!

    @drmchsr0

    I never thought I’d say this to you, but my man, that’s an insightful comment! ;)

    1. I genuinely believe the outsourcing issue is the result of short-sighted boardroom types who are better versed in running a business than how the product is, well, produced. The other point Sato raises lies in the hands of the viewers, however.

      A studio usually makes what people want (or what they think they want!) to watch; a safer approach in this day and age, which sadly doesn’t allow for much creative freedom. The fact that too many people dismissed E7 as an NGE rip-off is, to put it bluntly, a case of stupid fans. What’s causing so much upset for the likes of Sato is that the tastes of the viewers has changed – hopefully it is just one of those phases and will change again in the near future – and perhaps it’s also a symptom of a shift in what fans want. You and I might love muzukashii-kei but for many it’s a case of pearls before swine.

      All *we* can do is show that bit of extra support the masses aren’t giving when the gems do turn up. When 5cm/s hit the fansub circuit I wished there were more indie-style efforts like those that Shinkai makes…and as if on cue, Rikka produced Yohiura’s Time of Eve.

      I really like Celeste’s alternative take BTW – if other countries start making good quality productions and beating Japan’s animation industry at its own game, perhaps the execs will take notice at last and give the creative teams the opportunities they need.

      1. This is a really cool, wise comment, Martin. I’ve nothing else to add, except to say that it got my heart pumping!

  6. @Martin: “potentially taking work away from domestic in-betweener animators who would otherwise be learning the craft from the ground up, rising in the ranks and forming the new crop of creators.”

    That’s an excellent point. In a sense short-term profits are being exchanged for long-term viability.

    @deaky

    WRT, aging of the “otaku-generation”, I don’t think this can be an effective catalyst for change. You mention the distinction between aging and “maturity”, but even more we have history; the Osama Tezuka generation aged, the Hideaki Anno generation aged (Evangelion has been over for almost 15 years), and yet here we are.

    @bateszi

    I think you make a good point that it isn’t completely clear what is going on. House of Five Leaves was produced, and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately it seems to have encountered difficulties in attracting an audience. Of course it is easy to make too much of one show, or even one season.

    It is difficult to characterize the nature of the problem, and how big the problem is, to say nothing of the solution, but I agree with Sato and others that some sort of problem exists.

  7. Ergo Proxy is one of the few anime series I didn’t complete just because I was so turned off by its ‘forced’ intelligence. It was poorly executed near the end of the series, and sometimes it felt as if information was just thrown at me instead of shown.

    His other works were impressive, but I don’t really think much of his works. Ergo Proxy was a disappointing, disorganized romp into forced philosophy. There is a problem, but as long as gems like Tatami Galaxy come out once a year I won’t have any problem with anime.

  8. I just think the industry goes through more fruitful periods and more barren periods naturally, and every time it’s in the low part of the cycle, people start making predictions of doom. And then it picks up again. Just three or four years ago, there were more brilliant and creative works around than I could keep track of. Such times will return if we just wait a bit.

  9. Eh, anime is not going to die out. There was a lot of crap ten years ago, too, and even earlier. Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Eva, etc. weren’t the rule, they were the exceptions, just like Tatami Galaxy and House of Five Leaves are exceptions today.

    There are obvious changes between “ten years ago” and “now” (including the near complete disappearance of shoujo anime and its slow rebirth following the more recent fanservicey trends – which I’m sure has to do with the transformation of shoujo manga and its readership in general). Nowadays the moe/loli trend is very strong, simply it brings the most money. I’m sure there are a million reasons as to why, including changes in the consumer base and the way of consumption, the way fandom works, etc. (Also, Japanese love cute things in general. Did you know there’s a Mt. Fuji-kun plushie? A cute, SD version of Mt. Fuji. Oh, Japan.) But it’s still just a trend and I’m pretty sure that another, new trend will emerge in less than one decade, as new generations of anime fans grow up, changes in society, economy, the anime industry, merchandising, etc. occur. Anime will continue to adapt to the needs of viewers, and there will always be people who try to break out of the mold in one way or another.

  10. Its clear how bitter and strictly biased Sato-san is. Although not entirely wrong, it must be incredibly frustrating for such a man to lose out to the same, redundant and derivative shows. Yet still I wouldn’t be all “doom and gloom”. This idea of the industry imploding on itself has been looming around since the early 2000s. And here we are, anime industry still intact with the occasional stand-out show of each season. I believe the decrease of shows airing along the years could be a good indication or a bad one. Its either that they could focus all their resources on less projects, creating better products or it could mean that the studios are troubled financially. Hopefully its the former :). With shows like FMA and Durarara just recently ending I doubt we’ll be facing a crisis any time soon. I believe anime has a bright future.

  11. @Joojoobees

    Here’s hoping the forthcoming Autumn season puts any doubts to bed.

    @Michael

    I’m tempted to agree with you on Ergo Proxy, but I’m due to rewatch it at some point, too. Even if it was a failure, I have some respect for what Sato tried to do with it.

    @Logopolis

    Indeed. No matter the season, I always seem to find something interesting to watch, but that’s also presuming the talent in the industry continues to flourish (which, as Sato suggests, may not be the case.) The proof will be in the pudding, I guess!

    @kuromitsu

    I hope you’re right. IMO, the next generation may well be the most interesting of all, considering we’re slowly seeing these home-made anime creators like Makoto Shinkai appear. Sato talks of the freedom experienced by mangaka, and perhaps the same can be said for our future anime creators, too?

    Anyway, how would one go about making mountain look cute? :)

    @Ivy

    Yeah, I must admit, I certainly haven’t been feeling like it’s the anime apocalypse or anything (it’s completely the opposite for me, in fact! Right now I’m going through something of a ‘summer of love’ with anime) However, I certainly wouldn’t say ‘no’ to more of the same from Sato and it sucks that he can’t get a job :(

  12. Now that I read the article again, I can’t help but find Satou a bit presumptious. “I’m writing complex, deep, ‘underground’ stuff but people just want inane fluff!” Now, without passing judgement on his works (oh, hell, just a litlte bit: I loved Wolf’s Rain but more for the mythology and the atmosphere -heh- than the actual story, and I couldn’t help finding Ergo Proxy hopelessly pretentious), I think he’s just being bitter and somewhat pretentious, pulling the usual “dark and edgy is better than light and happy” argument.

    What’s wrong with enjoying light entertainment focusing on creating a nice, comforting, relaxing mood? Yes, it’s not Art, but not everyone needs Art and Serious Business all the time. Most of us need escapist fluff, whether it comes in the form of moe high-school girls or shounen heroes or mecha heroes or whatever. People who don’t want to confront something won’t watch anime that deals with that issue anyway. (Case in point: Night Raid.)

    So he hates otaku. Okay, otaku being otaku is hardly anything new. But if we look at the history of anime, not a whole lot of it is complex, and not a lot of it deals with serious issues. A lot of shows are just, you know, enjoyable stuff with an interesting story and/or characters and/or art style, etc. Does this mean those are bad, too? After all, in the end of the day they’re only escapist fantasies that may scratch the surface but never plunge in too deep.

    Yes, I’m also annoyed by the deluge of loli/moe/erogame adaptations, but that doesn’t mean anime that is not “complex” and serious is inferior by default and people who enjoy fluff are disgusting.

  13. Very interesting highlight here. I had a longer comment to add but it ended up a little bloated, so I just made a proper post to respond to this piece here. I think really a lot of what Mr. Sato is getting at is, as some commentators have pointed out already, a case of dumb fans as much as it is dumb shows. It’s all the easier today with the internet to quickly get into allusions and references, but most of the references that seem to happen within the medium are strictly references to other anime: “otaku-isms”. I think that overall is what has Sato worried, and perhaps more than a little bitter.

  14. I completely agree with every thing he said there, no, seriously. Not just because Ergo Proxy like…renewed my hope in anime when it was released, or because like you, I’m a fan of almost everything he did. But I legitimately agree. I’ve been feeling the same feelings. Not really about the outsourcing, since I never knew, but still.

    I’ve been watching anime decline and it hurts me. 10 years from now is K-on! going to be a classic of this era? Ugh. I hope it fades into black and this whole ‘moe’ phase anime is going through burns out.

    Anime these days is pretty and all, but I prefer the shit animation of Berserk if I get the awesome storyline that went with it.

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