A History of Anime: The Super Abbreviated Version – part 4 (2000s-todayish)

moe anime k-on

Welcome to the last totally exhilarating installment! The 90s are done and we’re onto the stuff I assume the majority of readers either love or loathe, depending on their age. Let’s get started on that shall we?

I’m not gonna lie, this final article in the series was by far the most difficult for me to write. Not because I lack the same passion I had for writing about anime in the previous decades, but because anime in the 2000s is pretty hard (at least for me) to categorize. The trends were/are numerous, the industry wildly fluctuating, and of course it’s likely that some things will only become apparent further on down the line.

Having said that, the past years have seen one or two particular trends stand out, with the early 2000s being characterised by a strong presence of dramatic romance and harem shows (Love Hina, Fruits Basket, Maburaho, Ai Yori Aoshi, Mahoromatic, etc. etc.) and, especially from the mid-2000s onwards, a sharp increase in moe. Anime featuring teams of adorable doe-eyed females such as Clannad and Kanon were big hits, as were ‘extreme-moe’ titles that raised the concept of cute to a whole new level like K-On!, Hetalia, and Nichijou.

Due to the rise in otaku culture, titles that both pander to and parody common anime and otaku tropes have seen a similar rise in popularity, so that shows like Ouran High School Host Club, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, and Durarara!! featured at the very top of watch-lists following their release. These types of anime frequently make pop culture references to other shows and their fans, simultaneously flattering and poking fun at their audience.

durarara meta spice and wolf

While the more serious/action-orientated anime saw something of a lull during many seasons, the likes of Code Geass, Death Note, and Fullmetal Alchemist gained all the more attention for this, and today remain some of the most-loved anime titles of all time. Several highly popular and very otaku-friendly titles of the 2000s even managed to combine fast-paced action or surprisingly bloody content with moe and other conventionally light-hearted content, resulting in becoming the Evangelion of their respective genres – anime that employed yet simultaneously challenged common themes and stereotypes like Gurren Lagann (mecha), Angel Beats! (moe), and Madoka Magica (magical-girl).

As to how the anime industry is faring overall, well, that seems almost continually up for debate, and there are definitely arguments that go both ways. In some respects the industry has flourished over the past several years. We’ve seen the revival of high-budget feature-length anime films such as Millennium Actress, Appleseed, Paprika, and Steamboy, with this last title to be one of the most expensive anime films to date. And despite being director Yonebayashi Hiromasa’s first feature film, Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty earned a huge amount of attention and critical acclaim – it was the top grossing film in the Japanese box office for 2010, and the largest opening ever for a Studio Ghibli movie when it was released in North America.

ghibli arietty

Also of note are the many Western-created cartoons that have been directly inspired by anime, either in terms of content or visuals – The Powerpuff Girls, Teen Titans, Samurai Jack, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Avatar: The Last Airbender/Legend of Korra, Steven Universe, RWBY… the list goes on a while. That’s not including the mainstream cartoons that simply reference or parody anime once in a while either, like The Simpsons or South Park. Anime isn’t just some cult or otaku-only product anymore – it’s made its way into the mass public consciousness and it’s clearly there to stay.

Meanwhile, the core anime fandom itself shows no sign of fizzling out. Convention attendances continue to climb, as do the number of more casual watchers thanks to mega-hit shows like One Piece, Naruto, Bleach, Death Note, and Attack on Titan. An outlet for more experimental work was found with the introduction of noitaminA in 2005 – the Fuji TV network’s late night anime programming block aimed at expanding the target audience beyond the young male demographic – and has aired many well-known and well-respected titles: Honey and Clover, Nodame Cantabile, Eden of the East, Hourou Musuko, Usagi Drop, and Gin no Saji (to name just the first few that spring to mind).

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At the same time, it could also be argued that the anime industry as a whole has reached something of a plateau. Conditions for those working professionally in the field (never great to begin with) have worsened, and it’s been estimated that over 90% of animators who enter this line of work now leave after less than three years – a result of long working hours under extremely high pressure and with extremely little pay. Then there are the inevitable deaths and retirements of older industry workers – Kon Satoshi (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent) and Nakamura Ryuutarou (Serial Experiments Lain, Kino’s Journey, Ghost Hound) passed away in 2010 and 2013 respectively, and Miyazaki Hayao semi-retired in 2013, with Studio Ghibli at least temporarily still on hiatus.

On the more technical side of things, a decline in domestic DVD sales and a relatively slow consumer adoption of Blu-ray, combined with the explosion of anime that is now being watched online, has meant that big-name distribution companies like Geneon, AD Vision, Tokyopop, Toei, and Bandai Visual have ceased distributing anime DVDs in the US, while some domestic companies such as Hirameki, Anime Crash, and Central Park Media have gone out of business altogether.

Although digital distribution of anime has expanded as a result, many wonder whether or not it’s truly proven itself sustainable. Fan-run website Crunchyroll, which launched in 2006 and gained immense popularity by streaming unauthorized fansubbed anime, transformed into an entirely different forum the following year when it formed partnerships with various Asian content providers, and began streaming only legally licensed content. While other sites such as Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube are likewise making significant advances in substituting for and possibly eventually replacing television broadcast anime entirely, it may be too soon to be able to tell whether some of these sites will be ultimately successful – particularly when digitally-powered piracy is still so easy.

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So, where to from here? Honestly, that’s hard to say, and what anime and the otaku subculture will look like by the time the next decade is over is still largely speculation – although it seems pretty likely that the transition from owning physical copies of anime to a mostly online consumption will be taken further. On the one hand, this will probably mean that the price of anime on DVD and Blu-ray will continue to climb, while many shows may become collector items as they were in the 80s. On the other hand, this could also result in a stronger and more global otaku community in the long run, since more and more fans are turning to the internet for primary communication.

Meanwhile, although the prevalence of anime that rely on moe and general fanservice for their storytelling have been blamed for dragging down the integrity of anime (in part stemming from the ever-increasing mountain of low-quality light novel adaptations aimed squarely at male teens and young adults), highly original and sometimes boldly avant-garde shows are still being created. The first decade of the new millennium had the likes of Haibane Renmei, Gankutsuou, Mononoke, Dennou Coil, and Mouryou no Hako, while 2010 onwards has seen the release of titles such as Tatami Galaxy, Mawaru Pengruindrum, Tsuritama, The Woman Called Mine Fujiko, and Ping Pong. Regardless of whether or not the anime industry truly is going downhill, it clearly isn’t artistically (or financially) bankrupt just yet.

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Final word count: 4654. Under 5000 words, NAILED IT.

So there we have it. Not an all-inclusive history of anime by any means, but hopefully one which gives a broad idea of the road anime travelled in order to become what it is today, for better or for worse. As readers may have noticed, I left out the usual end question of the post of each article of this series until now – and so I put it to you guys: What do you think of anime today compared to anime 10 or 20 years ago, and what do you think the industry will look like 10 or 20 years from now? And the usual exaggeration/sarcasm aside, do you believe anime is actually going downhill, and if so will it recover?

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25 thoughts on “A History of Anime: The Super Abbreviated Version – part 4 (2000s-todayish)

  1. Actually, I prefer the older anime. I’m quite demanding and it’s not easy for me to find a decent anime these days. That’s why I’m not up-to-date with new titles. I don’t like moe and noisy big-breasted teen heroines. I also don’t approve of experiments with animation like in Ajin. Tendency to making sequels and prequels is irritating either. On the other hand sometimes we get really nice and interesting series like Psycho-Pass or Boku Dake Ga Inai Machi. I can’t predict future but I think there will be more ONA and more comedies rather than complex stories.

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    • That’s fair. I know a lot of people who aren’t into these recent-ish moe trends, and the art style is also very different now than it was during previous decades. I personally don’t disapprove of experiments with new animation techniques – without them, anime as we know it wouldn’t exist at all! – but I do understand why people would prefer the older cel animation to CG.

      If I may ask, what are some of your all-time favourite anime titles?

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      • I think Ghost in the Shell will be my no.1 because I like cyberpunk. I also love Armitage III and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Ai no Kusabi and Hotaru no Haka because they make me cry. And I would also mention Gundam Wing, Tenkuu no Escaflowne and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

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  2. What a great series. The nostalgia was real. Thanks for writing and posting this. I agree with the previous poster. I haven’t kept up with a lot of the newer anime because it all seems so similar. There are tons of copy shows, especially magical high school shows. But, on the other hand, a lot of older series I never got to see are being put no services like Hulu, and Netflix. This is what I find exciting about the future (if you can call it that) of anime. When I was a kid, and a teenager, I couldn’t afford the expensive VHS and then DVD releases that only held a couple episodes. So it is nice to be able to go back and watch old Macross, or Gundam shows on Hulu and the like.

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    • Thank you for saying so, and you’re very welcome. I genuinely enjoyed writing (and getting nostalgic over) this little series.

      Yeah, I think one of the best things about anime today is that a lot of people can now watch pretty much any time they feel like it, almost regardless of how old the show is. The days where I had to painstakingly download something via dial-up internet or record it on VHS if it was on TV are long gone, and that’s got to count for something.

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  3. With regard to the future, the demographic question must always be raised when speaking of Japan. Who will be the audience for these works, who will make them, and who will fund them? A smaller and smaller number of Japanese people would seem to be the answer. Digital distribution overseas appears to be one of the solutions for making money in a shrinking domestic market.

    Still, I can’t say I’m fond of the homegrown solution of Daisuki, as for some damn reason they don’t have apps for streaming devices or smart TVs. What, I can’t watch through my Roku? I have to watch TV on my laptop like it’s 2006 and I’m pirating the last season of Lost? The inconvenience is a big part of the reason why I never finished One Punch Man. At least foreign distributors like Crunchyroll and Funimation are more accessible.

    It’s interesting to compare the situation with manga, where I can practically smell the fear sweat oozing off the publishers as they desperately translate and upload their catalogue in hopes of heading off the scanlators. I tried out Manga Box but ended up uninstalling it once I discovered that none of their titles appealed to me. Plus I couldn’t even figure out how I was supposed to buy back issues, which would seem to be the point of the whole enterprise. Too bad they couldn’t be on the ball like their South Korean counterparts, who appear to be doing pretty good with the translated comics through Line Webtoons and Lezhin Comics.

    Anyway, I predict sometime soon we’ll be treated to a Kickstarter-funded anime series engineered to appeal to Western viewers. It will be awful and universally reviled and we’ll all wish we could delete its memory from the hard drives of our brains.

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    • Personally, I almost always watch all anime on my laptop now. I may live in Japan, but I’ve not owned a working TV for the last 3 years.

      “I predict sometime soon we’ll be treated to a Kickstarter-funded anime series engineered to appeal to Western viewers. It will be awful and universally reviled and we’ll all wish we could delete its memory from the hard drives of our brains.”

      … That does feel like a scarily accurate prediction.

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  4. This has been an awesome and enlightening series. Personally, I’d be interested in reading the unabridged version. Heck, talk to someone who knows Youtube and you could make a documentary out of it. As for me, I got into anime a little late, so the older titles don’t wow me as much as modern anime. Most of my favorites are firmly planted in the 2000s, but you’ve piqued my interest in Evangelion, so I’ll have to give that a shot. Once I’ve finished re-watching Nodame Cantabille…and Is It Okay to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon…oh, and I have to finish Darker Than Black. And I did buy the set of My Bride is a Mermaid, so I should watch it…oy, slippery slope, innit?

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    • I won’t be putting up the unabridged version anywhere, because honestly it’s a mess – it’s not just longer, but also rambly and honestly not that well written, since it never made it past the rough draft version. I actually had to do a lot more work on this abridged version than I had initially thought, because not only did I edit significantly for length but also ended up going with a completely different writing style. That said, I didn’t think many people would be too interested in reading it, so I’m thrilled by the largely positive response I’ve gotten. 🙂

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  5. Nice articles, and good work on staying below the cap (*man that can be really hard sometimes).

    In terms of sheer accessibility/distribution alone, it’s a great time to be anime fans today. As much as I missed older anime’s art style/story-telling sensibilities, I wouldn’t want to go back the era where my only options are to tune in to a specific TV time slot every week or shell out a fortune for CDs (*and very little to no opportunity to access older anime!). Selective memory and over-generalization played a big part in glorifying the past, and It’s also possible that the sheer number and availability today also lead to diminished satisfaction and fans underappreciating the value of a given show. As someone who first got acquainted with the medium in 1990s, I can honestly say the selection today is a lot more diverse and interesting than it’s very often given credit for; even when I’m sometimes disappointed by some of the modern shows, I’ve also found plenty of value by digging deeper and checking out hidden gems from recent times (e.g. just discovered Natsume Yuujinchou, and am currently having a wonderful time with it!). Just have to do that extra research, and be more open-minded on less popular shows.

    There’s possibility that there would be independent/crowd-funded anime projects in the future, and that visionary creators would be able to produce more daring, experimental, and passionate works w/o being restricted by studio mandate. I couldn’t see it happening anytime soon or that it’d become a popular trend due to inherent cultural resistance against such system, but as I’ve read from an interview with Masaaki Yuasa once, it’s certainly a viable option worth considering by the new generation of creators.

    Ten years after (*play the 08th MS Team ED), who knows what the industry looks like, or even if I’m still watching and enjoying the medium. I sure hope so though, and that there would still be people like you around to discuss with =)

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    • Yeah, being able to access anime basically whenever I want is a huge improvement over what we got in the 90s and earlier. VHS tapes and dial-up internet, say no more.

      Oh my goodness, Natsume Yuujinchou. I adore that series, and am not ashamed to say it made me cry more than once – still does in fact, even though I’ve now watched it several times. But yes, I think anime does call for plenty of open-mindedness. I see people who seem to love complaining about how anime is nowhere near as good now as it was back in the day, and to a certain extent I can sympathise. The art style is completely different now than it was in the 90s for example, and I also understand the frustration at being confronted with skeevy fanservice and teams of moe girls every which way you turn. That said, I also think that if an anime fan claims to like absolutely nothing out there from the 2000s up, they’re probably just not looking hard enough.

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  6. This is decade I’m more familiar with and can relate to since most of the titles I watch is from this decade. I believe online streaming or digital access to the titles are one of the major reasons for increased popularity of anime worldwide. It is through Internet that I discovered anime and it is where I continue I consume anime. I do buy DVDs but very rarely.

    Of course we’ll never know what the next decade will be like until we get there, but it’ll be interesting to see the trends change once again. It is shifting as we speak too.

    Thanks for sharing your super abbreviated version of history of anime. Definitely had fun reading!

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    • Yeah, I’ve been consuming all of my anime online as well for the past several years. I used to collect a lot of anime on DVD, but since I now live in Japan and know my situation here to be only temporary, I’ve been trying hard to limit buying anything that I don’t really need. No sense filling up my house with stuff if I’m only going to end up boxing it and shipping it back home to New Zealand at some point.

      You’re welcome, and I’m really glad you enjoyed the read!

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  7. I agree with you saying anime has plateaued. There’s not a lot of anime I’ve taken a shining to from the past 15 or so years. I tried to watch, but it was all too familiar, imo. I don’t mind rehashed ideas if something new is added to the design, but I guess with anime gone mainstream, it’s not as alluring. I’ll watch the odd anime movie these days but television material just does not grab me anymore.

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    • I don’t think I said anime has plateaued exactly, although many other people do seem to think so. Financially the industry isn’t in great shape, I won’t argue that, but I think there’s still good televised anime out there for those prepared to look hard enough. It’s just that it’s perhaps more hidden than it used to be, under all those moe and fanservicey shows aimed primarily at Japanese males. Get beyond that, and I think there’s still some pretty fantastic stuff being made.

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  8. Another big aspect of anime today, I think, is the prevalence of the production committee of multiple interests in funding anime creation. One main complaint is that it causes a “too many cooks” scenario, where the anime studio’s creativity is curtailed by the need to meet each investor’s demand in exchange for funds (a music producer demands an upcoming Jpop song be featured as the OP in exchange for their investment, despite the director thinking otherwise.).

    I think today’s otaku pandering is both a blessing and curse. On one hand thats where most of the crazy uniqueness of today’s anime comes from. On the other hand it creates a cultural bubble limiting casual entry into anime. For example, a lot of light novels nowadays are written by otaku for otaku, and their animes are mostly watched and bought by otaku, thus creating Otakuception (Inception for otaku!). Which also leads into a rehash of the same themes over and over again (like how webnovels are stuck in the reincarnated/ sent to fantasy world rut).

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    • Yes, I’d have to agree with all these points. I suppose every scenario has its pros and cons, although I suspect a lot of long-time anime fans have become rather cynical and see the cons as far outweighing the more positive aspects.

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  9. Well, money is fuel and we can’t refuse anime creators should consider to market/demand or can’t survive and otaku are people who will devote their money (from their hard work) to achieve what they want. It’s like they are high motivation/determination/powerful. I don’t mind about fanservice & harem but if there’re too much in just one episode/chapter in anime/LN, I will be the one who can’t survive. I admit right now I avoid some anime that present these offerings too much. (sorry to my weak health)

    @Artemis, your words about “the anime industry as a whole has reached something of a plateau” is similar to that person’s comment in a news in a certain site that I read for a long time so I forgot his name, that site. However, I don’t think this industry will end some day because I still find grand anime/LN that still consider market/demand but aim for something different more than market/demand, such as Oregairu.

    Anime industry is like a long journey to me, so it will continue.

    When I am working in this Oregairu analysis focuses on many characters who are very interesting and hard to understand (such as Haruno, Hayama, even Rumi.) I knew this famous anime/LN is masterpiece (this is not bragging) work. In order to understand those boss level character, I need to read/watch (how many I did , I forgot) over & over. After I started to understand them more or less, I look back to writer/creator who did this masterpiece work to me and everyone. I am very grateful for his carefulness in whole LN/anime/manga series.

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  10. That’s true, anime creators and other workers in the industry need to make money – it’s entertainment and sometimes it’s art, but I also know that first and foremost, anime is a business. To that end, appealing to the lowest common denominator can be a necessity, hence the all too common use (and/or overuse) of things like fanservice. However, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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  11. From the perspective of somebody who was around and a fan when the American (superhero) comics industry crashed and burned in the early nineties, the current situation anime is in rings alarm bells. You got a hardcore audience of fans which are increasingly pandered too, an unwillingness to step outside limited genre boundaries to try and find new audiences, as well as too many projects trying to do the same thing and win a share of that core demographic. So you get the situation that every season you have series with not only suspiciously similar stories, but suspiciously similar scenes, like with Asterisk Wars/Chivalry in the Fall 2015 season.

    Thing is, in the short term, making yet another mediocre light novel adaptation makes good business sense: it’s a known market and nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. It’s only unsustainable in the long term because by pandering to this established audience the industry limits its ability to attract new viewers.

    Nevertheless, from a purely artistic/creative point of view there are still anime series being made that hold up to the best of the nineties or eighties: last season’s Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju frex.

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    • Yup, I pretty much agree with all this. And while I was hesitant to mention Rakugo Shinju in this series of articles since it hadn’t finished airing by the time I wrote it, I also agree that it’s a high-quality series that’s very different from the usual anime fare.

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  12. Definitely, an important aspect of anime over the last decade or so has been the internet. For me, viewing on the internet is the only way I have access to anime. I’d happily pay a subscription to a dedicated online anime provider as long as it didn’t also shove ads at me. For example, that’s exactly why I’ll never have a subscription with Hulu. I also don’t want to have to have multiple subscriptions in order to not miss watching a title I’m interested in. I hate it when a streaming provider gets exclusive rights to a title. If I were a provider of such online streaming, I’d charge the customers a set subscription rate but I’d pay the anime producers based on how much their anime gets viewed on my service. My hope would be that it would inspire the producers to make good anime. The only times I’ve bought dvds of anime was when I really really liked a particular title. I’d buy more dvds if the prices weren’t so freeking high…. I feel that the anime industry really needs to work out how to make their shows available on the internet and make it profitable enough for them without gouging the viewers the way the costs of dvds are. Anime on bluray is just ridiculous. They need to drop that.

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    • I used to collect a lot of anime on DVDs myself, although that basically became impossible after I started all my country-hopping. But yes, I certainly think the anime industry has a long way to go yet with regards to internet availability, particularly in Japan.

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