January 6, 2012

What’s up with Anime?

Well, 2012 has certainly kicked off with something of an inauspicious start for Anime fans after the word came down that Bandai Entertainment is ceasing production of new releases. Ouch! I know that the anime and manga business has been hit with some hard times in recent years, but the company that handles Gundam, the most popular anime franchise of all time, can’t make it work, you know something just ain’t right.

Much has been made of the anime industry’s current problems, with several companies having disappeared here in North America and news of the market shrinking in Japan with animators having to scrape by with low pay. It’s a real bummer to take in all of this, and I guess everybody has their own idea about what the problems are and what the solutions should be.

Piracy gets mentioned a lot as a prime cause of the industry’s woes, and rightly so. Downloading unlicensed fansubs is one thing, but stealing DVD rips is something else all together. There is no excuse for that, and it points to a significant portion of anime fans as being whiny brats with entitlement complexes. I’ve downloaded my fair share of fansubs, but if there is something I like that gets licensed, I’ll buy it. You just have to pay to get the things you like. It’s only fair. And it does not make sense when anime convention attendance numbers keep increasing while the business itself is in decline. Of course, piracy is going to exist no matter what, but when the majority of anime fans are young, tech-savvy, and have grown into the fandom being used to the notion where getting anything you want for free is completely normal, than the problem piracy becomes a lot worse, as anime is a relatively niche market when compared to Hollywood movies and such.

People like to say that digital distribution is the way to go, but I am not so convinced. It’s a great thing, and probably the best solution available right now. I like to use a site like Crunchyroll to sample a show, to watch something that isn’t available on R1 DVD, or just to pass the time. But to me, watching a streaming video, even a free and legal one, is no substitute to actually buying a real physical piece of media that you can own. The idea of DVDs and Blu Rays going away doesn’t sit well with me, as I don’t like the idea of paying money for products that I can’t actually touch. Beyond that, though, there are still people who just don’t know anything about the legal ways to watch anime, and there is still a lot of confusion between them and illegal sites that don’t give anything back to the original creators. It’s all the same product so the average teenaged anime fan isn’t going to care as long as they get what they want.

These are all important things to talk about, but I think the real problems and the real solutions are a lot deeper than all of this. I know first hand from working with kids and teenagers in my drawing classes that there are a lot of young people who are interested in anime, but very few of them come in with a good understanding of what anime really is and how to watch it. You can stream all the anime you want on the Internet, but if these kids don’t know anything about it, and they aren’t given a reason to care, than they’re not going to watch it, they’re not going to buy it, and they’re not going to grow up to be fans who are ready to move on to more sophisticated titles. But they are out there, they are hungry to learn more, they can be marketed to, and they can help to expand the fan base. To get them to this point, you can’t expect them to just start buying single volume DVDs with a few episodes of a show they’ve never heard of, or even to buy box sets with any frequency, nor can we expect them to know the ins and outs of navigating various websites, with some of them being good and others being evil. The anime business can’t just concentrate on the audience it has now, especially if that audience is only interested in piracy. They have to reach new people and make this business grow.

They have to put more anime on TV!

For these kids, if it’s not on TV at the times when they are watching TV, it simply does not exist!

Of course, getting anime on TV opens up other problems. With the big TV networks being what they are today, there is little reason for them to air something produced in Japan and released by a licensed company that they would have to share money with when they could create something new and keep all they money themselves. Naruto was a big hit for Cartoon Network in the US, but they made more money off of Ben 10, simply because they own it. They got all the money from airing the show, plus all the money from merchandising, and that means shows like Naruto aren’t that special anymore. So that very notion creates a rather narrow avenue for anime on TV.

The other problem is, unfortunately, with the anime being produced in Japan right now. There are always lots of new shows, but things are kind of creatively stagnant. The really interesting shows are few and far between, the artwork isn’t as detailed, and there just isn’t as much “must watch” stuff out there. The birth rate in Japan is down, which means less shows being produced for kids, which means less kids growing up to be anime fans in Japan, and also means less suitable kids’ shows ready to be translated for global distribution. Then you factor in how little anime artists are paid, and the rise of video games as an industry that attracts creative people to work in, and it’s really no wonder things are the way they are. As the market shrinks in Japan, much of the anime that is produced is geared towards the remaining hardcore fans, and so this material isn’t always appealing, significant, or even culturally palatable by fans elsewhere around the world.

To put it all into some kind of context, I watched both K-ON and Lucky Star via fansubs, two of the bigger recent hits in the fandom. While they are certainly enjoyable shows, and I can see why they’d have their fans, they didn’t really captivate me enough to want to buy them right away. I wouldn’t want to pay more than $20-$25 for the entire series for either of them, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to want to pay much more than the cost of a season set of a typical Hollywood produced sitcom on DVD. Yet these were huge licenses that probably cost a lot of money to bring over from Japan due to their popularity there, plus the cost to dub, subtitle, package, and market. So these shows were expected to sell very well, with the primary business model being to release a few episodes at a time through single volume releases which cost as much or more than an average movie, targeted almost exclusively to an audience that most likely already has all the episodes on their hard drives and watched them months ago. And the people who haven’t seen these shows already probably don’t even know what they are because they’re not on TV, and the only way to find out inevitably involves resorting to piracy. Oh, and the content of these shows basically amounts to a bunch of girls hanging out and doing silly things without any major plot development. Do we see a problem here?

So, what can be done about all this? Can anime be saved? I hope so. I have my own ideas on what can be done, which I may share later, but as big of a fan as I am, I am still just outsider looking in and I don’t know the realities of being in business. But as a fan, I want to see anime get bigger, get better, have more fans, cover more topics, with more interesting stories, and be readily available to more people, because I want more stuff to watch too. I want everybody else to know what I already know: that anime is an awesome form of art. But it’s a business as well, and that business is just not going to continue much longer if it can’t be profitable. Catering solely to an audience that would rather steal is not going to make that happen. The snake has got to stop eating its own tail!

Anyway, thanks to holiday sales and eBay, I’ve been buying a lot of cheap anime recently, so I’ve got a whole pile of legitimate R1 DVDs to watch. In the meantime, I’d like to know what you think, so please post your thoughts in the comments below.



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