So this emerges much later than I intended, but hey, I had things going on. So here it is, consider this prep for the KILL la KILL review (which is still a long ways away).
So I’ve avoided dragging this mess into the KILL la KILL reviews, because personally I feel it would just bog down the entirety of the series to prop it up with hype expectations (Indeed, it is now a meme to ask “How saved is anime?” whenever talking about KLK). I had -personal- reasons for wanting to display it here, as I did for Galilei Donna and Nobunagun, which are weighed against those hopes of what I want to see, but I hope are more or less limited to the impact those hopes have on my enjoyment of a series. To drag in the hype wars that communities make about certain shows, in my opinion, does them a disservice. I mean, they are communities of human beings, and humans are some stupid morons.
I don’t speak as a purist, either. My fandom of personal hype is Kingdom Hearts, which I constantly feel rage and hatred for that basically has to be resolved through the medium of fanfiction to resolve my differences with the creative people behind said franchise. I hold much lower opinions of the games than my siblings or friends because I personally feel invested and see things that feel completely obvious, that then get ignored. So my gloves aren’t clean in this.
But, in due course, I feel we have to address the greater issue behind the community hype of KILL la KILL. To not address it would leave a key part of this show’s success out of the discussion. In part because it IS related to how the fan community receives the show, and in part, because it speaks to a broader question about anime in general, and the studios’ continued efforts to revive “what once was”.
So the topic at hand….did KILL la KILL “save” anime? Or, perhaps more generally, does any series hold up to saving anime?
Well let’s examine the premise first. And be reminded: These will mostly be -my- conclusions. This is not a thesis so I can get my doctorate or anything like that. Just as one can say the social contract of consumption from the 1980s has improved the economy, or destroyed it, based on the same pieces of evidence, no one’s really right here because it’s complicated, and no one person can hope to truly articulate the ENTIRETY of the issues. This is just my hat. There are no rules. Only that you kneel while in my presence. Wait, what?
The Rise of the Anime Empire
Our first question is this: What caused Anime to become so mainstream as it has over the past ten years?
First, the delivery vehicles. Very few local geek communities exist. If you aren’t already part of one in your hometown, odds are you need to make one happen. You can sometimes get comraderie in the local gaming/comic book shop, that is, if you live in an urban area where those can still eek by.
But we have to look at the early 2000s to find where we had a good vehicle for anime distribution: Toonami, and later, Adult Swim, both on Cartoon Network.
Many of today’s Gen Y and Millennials got their start to anime in one of these places. Sailor Moon, DragonBallZ, and Pokemon probably account, combined, for about half of all the “first” anime in this age group. There had been anime before, of course. All the way back to the 50s, Gigantor and Astro Boy had been translated into English for American consumption. Later Speed Racer and Voltron would be significant presences in American culture.
But really this span around the late 90s was when things really came to a head.
Funimation, riding it’s acquisition of DragonBallZ and success on the Toonami block, did a brilliant thing around the year 2000: They began to promo other anime in their roster. I remember once upon a time getting a free copy of the first episode of Yu-Yu Hakusho. And when that show did come, I DID watch, and DID buy the DVDs. Now, Yu-Yu Hakusho is a quality show, and this certainly helped, but I think the genius in promoting material like this really helped. It proved, for a time at least, to Cartoon Network that there WAS a market for this Japanese crap that hadn’t been fully exploited yet. This was, of course, back in the days when anime box-art was very common on VHS, hundreds of dollars wasted collecting entire series on video tape (that would cost some 80 dollars for the DVD box set today).
Personally you didn’t have to tell me that market was untapped. I had a single friend who enjoyed DBZ alongside me, my friend Brandon. We would talk a lot about it in middle school-high school. Before long another friend of mine, Matt, wanted in. So I lent him my tapes, one by one. Some people saw us trading tapes and asked what was up. Before I knew it I was a DBZ rental service: I was the only one with a complete series (up until Freeza saga, at least, then I had holes, poor me, but my collection went all the way to Cell Games). At least half a dozen people were borrowing cassettes. It was definitely something that needed to be exploited from my tiny, anecdotal experience in a town of 25,000 people. Here was a whole group of people who hadn’t heard about DBZ or knew anime, but had only just discovered it around the age of 16. It was new and they liked it.
So around this time, it’s no surprise, that Toonami became almost exclusively an anime vehicle. And around the same time, Adult Swim had been launched, and was ready to play uncensored versions of certain shows, such as Yu-Yu Hakusho, and from the very first night, played a little show called Cowboy Bebop.
EVEN MY DAD was watching Inuyasha with us on saturday nights (his favorite was Kikyo).
This was the start of the Anime Renaissance.
The Anime Renaissance is, loosely, the period from about the year 1996-2008. Various definitions will give or take a year, depending who you ask, what factors you try to use as benchmarks, but this time period is the rough outline. Some can trace it back to say, 1997 and Final Fantasy VII, and the mainstream JRPG. Or say the groundwork was laid in 1996 with Evangelion. But this is where I personally draw the line: 2001, the launch of Adult Swim and the first exposure to Cowboy Bebop (introducing Western markets at large to “adult anime”), until 2007, and the conclusion of Death Note, what I would call the Last Renaissance Series.
Several reasons exist for the Renaissance, the least of which isn’t the untapped market I mentioned above. Any industry that isn’t tapped and suddenly finds itself with excess capital is going to find major growth, physically and creatively. Studios wanting in on the new market will take more risks, will fund more projects banking on the long term effects. See: Nickleodeon taking a risk on Avatar in this time period, a HUGE deviation from its standard fare. And of course, perhaps most important, the backlog of untranslated material sent to Western Markets which is pretty dry nowadays, most shows that COULD make it overseas, have been translated and packaged. But in that early period Western markets were being fully exposed to Evangelion, a series from 1996, and Inuyasha, first aired in 2002 on Adult Swim, in back to back timeslots. Cherrypick the best series from 2008 until today and you will see what I mean when you try to pick ONLY the best in terms of quality.
Another factor was the rise of cheap computer animation. Though hand-drawing was still common around 2000, a mere five years later most cartoons would be at least partially computer constructs, not even leaving the west, Family Guy and the Simpsons adopted flash and other programming shortcuts to hand drawn styles around this time. FullMetal Alchemist used CG extensively in addition to animating.
This meant anime would be cheaper and quicker to produce.
Because of the limited delivery vehicle of national cable networks, as well, there was more homogeneity in the anime community. If you were in Maine, you were probably watching a lot of the same shows as someone in Oregon. Because streaming basically didn’t exist and broadband speeds were not common until about 2004-2005 (when they finally became the -simple majority- over dial-up).
Creatively, many of the best series came in this time. DragonBallZ finished, FullMetal Alchemist, Inuyahsa, FLCL, Naruto, Ga Rei Zero, Bleach, Digimon, Ghost in the Shell, Gankutsuou, Fruits Basket, Pokemon, all powerful juggernauts of marketing, sales, and art in Japan and the West. Anime was finding it hard to lose in this period.
You have probably heard of, watched, and even enjoyed at least six of those shows I mentioned, maybe all. It was, in short, a Renaissance. Against this period of time it would be hard to hold up any period in TV animation side by side to compare, so do we?
The Decline and Fall of the Anime Empire.
I believe the first question to ask is such: Is there a decline in anime?
After all, this whole concept of “saving anime” relies on the premise of fan communities and studio execs, which are centers of group think and prone to heavy nostalgia goggles. As the circle of logic goes round and round, what may have started as “there were some stellar anime five years ago” eventually plays like a game of telephone off the inter-community dynamics and soon becomes “ALL GOOD ANIME CEASED FIVE YEARS AGO!”
So let’s see why this attitude -may- exist.
I think first, as I described, there was a lot of superior creative work going on in the early 2000s. Eventually, the cycle had to end, and derivative work became more and more common place. When there simply wasn’t enough anime to consume and anime fans would buy ANYTHING to fill that void, things seemed peachy. But when they found themselves with choices to make they started weighing purchases more carefully, and suddenly studios in Japan found the new Western market wasn’t biting as hard, so they stopped producing for their tastes as hard.
Yes, in fact, believe it or not a lot of anime that makes it across shores is specifically designed that way, or at the very least goes through LOTS of focus groups to find if audiences across the ocean will like it. Anime is still, primarily, made for a Japanese palliate. And media culture is, shocker, different in Japan. So once the frenzy in the West had died down, studios no longer felt all that obligated to crank out stuff for their tastes. In short, they could go back to business as usual.
But does that shift still mean the same thing as “decline”? I think it’s complicated. On the one hand, if you are a fan of animation as a medium, it’s disheartening. America may produce shows that are up to the story and character standards of anime, as the aforementioned Avatar on Nickelodeon. But, let’s also remember, even though Avatar constantly wins fans-choice awards and nets them incredibly high ratings, Nickelodeon doesn’t want to adapt to that market. They see that reruns of Avatar do not net the same return as reruns of Spongebob. Never mind that “reruns” of Avatar are the most rerunniest thing ever (literally, playing the same four episodes over and over again), in a format that is not as fitting for it like a sitcom show like Spingebob. So unwilling to adapt, they tend to pull it from the airwaves. While Avatar is definitely a creative success, and almost certainly a financial windfall for Nickelodeon, it is too much effort for them to want to make it work in the long term.
It’s not just fart-joke Nickelodeon, either. We’ve seen Cartoon Network move away from animation, and it’s Renaissance-era inspired series like Teen Titans, to a more reality-tv, comedy style of programming. It’s cheap, and that’s how it is.
I think in America this can attribute to animation’s Dark Age, the era between the late 1950s and the 1980s. Cartoons in this time were designed for one reason: Cartoons were cheap, and children will watch anything. This is why animation is seen still as a kid’s vehicle in the West. Not because it was always that way, far from it. One needs only look at Walt Disney making WW2 propoganda films, and the 30s surge of, comparatively, erotica animation to see it was not always so. But when cartoons became associated with “brainless”, they were relegated to the world of children. Animation only emerged from The Dark Ages with our OWN Renaissance, in the late 80s and early 90s, starting with Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But it has never truly escaped the hole, though comedy has managed to win its way back into our hearts, see Futurama and Family Guy. But drama is not considered an animation realm, still, despite the several shows that prove it can work (the aforementioned Avatar and Gargoyles spring to mind).
Which is why, if you enjoy animation as a medium, but also enjoy dramatic tension, anime is your primary vehicle.
The decline of Adult Swims anime bloc did not help. Anime had lower ratings than the comedy blocs, in part because of prejudice as we mentioned last paragraph, and in part because of the speculative fictional nature of anime on adult swim. Fantasy and sci-fi isn’t for everyone, of course. But watching people get hit in the nuts crosses all socio-economic classes. So Saturday nights began a vicious cycle around 2003, where Adult Swim would whittle down the anime bloc. Anime fans would see less anime, and would have to stay up later to watch it, so some left. In turn the bloc would be cut down another half hour. More would leave. By causing anime fans to abandon Adult Swim, there was justification that the network was losing money on blocs better spent on more Family Guy. So this cycle continued until you have a couple anime shows on Saturday night.
This loss of “national viewing culture” crippled anime as a cultural phenomenon. I’m not even getting into the sub vs. dub thing. The fact there wasn’t a common point of congregation around the television, and that most anime viewing would be done through DVD box sets or internet streaming, meant that anime was less “Did you see the new episode this weekend?” to “I’m watching this new series, you should check it out.” (to be met with an unenthusiastic “someday” 9 times out of 10). And that is more effort, it is harder to rope in the outside viewer who may find it channel surfing.
Which brings us to digital media itself. As more young people abandon terrestrial TV altogether, there isn’t the same note of suspense. You watch what you watch, and maybe someone else has watched it. Or maybe they watch later in the week than you do when they have time. Or perhaps they don’t have a computer good for streaming (less a problem the past few years). Perhaps they don’t have the economic power to buy a DVD box set, when they would have glady added their numbers to a Nielson rating for a show that can’t find a place to air.
All are contributory factors to this lack of common culture. Which is why I designate Death Note as the last Renaissance series. It was the last anime to catch like wild fire, and to have a complete saturation within the geek community within a single year. Madoka Magica, released only three years later and just as quality a show (more so if we weigh the final third of Death Note against it =P), did not have the same level of saturation. There are LOTS of people who are anime fans, through and through, could name off the plots of all those Renaissance shows I listed earlier in this essay, and yet have not bothered to sit down and watch Madoka yet. Not of malice, but….just because.
Is Madoka Magica objectively as good as Death Note? Maybe, maybe not. To be sure, the edge is that Death Note managed to be a breakout series in the Autumn season, which is typically the strongest season for anime. Madoka played in the winter, traditionally the weakest, and thus came out looking stronger by comparison than it may have among competition.
But regardless of the reasons, there hasn’t been such a phenomenon as Death Note since then (prior to Death Note, FullMetal Alchemist and Naruto were two such saturated series if you happened to travel the con scene back then).
I certainly think though, that had it been released some years prior, Madoka would have received the same kind of saturation. The same could be said of the new golden child, Attack on Titan.
And of course, a contributing factor, the core demographic of the Renaissance has simply gotten old. There was more time in school and college to wax philosophic about television shows. And now they have families and jobs (the lucky ones do) and, in some cases, feel they’ve outgrown it. The equated generation in middle school and high school THIS year, may not have seen DragonBallZ, may not have experienced the rite of passage that is Elfen Lied, may not have seen the original Pokemon, and certainly can’t REMEMBER a time of 151 pokemon, right? It’s more back to the “you have to know someone in the club” days.
So, in my roundabout way, is this the same thing as decline?
If your answer hinges on how mainstream anime is in the West, the answer is probably yes. With the current pattern you will not see the same kind of culture, either from fans, studios, or in-betweens.
If you simply want to enjoy stories, the answer is no.
Anime is certainly falling back into that fringe market. I don’t believe it will -ever- be as niche as it used to be in the 90s. There will always be a ViZ, or a Funimation to translate and process anime for us, there won’t be a need for fan-dubs and blue cassettes ever again. But with webcasting, and the market that prefers subtitles to dubs, it is less consumer-oriented and is definitely contracting.
Mind you, that’s not always true for the companies, who are probably making profit hand over fist. But for your community, for our own Western otaku culture, it is not as homogenous as it once was, and not as commonly binding. You have your shows, I have my shows. We can appreciate the others love, and share those experiences (it would serve geeks some good to be more open to new series when their friends suggest them), but that connection that you, as one of a hundred Naruto cosplayers feel, is gone. It’s more…something to be treasured, than a shared experience. The idea of finding someone who likes the same shows you do is more appealing than just the enormous number of people who have those core shows that bind the community together.
I think this is what is the source of anyone who believes that anime “needs saving”. Because those powerhouse juggernauts aren’t here anymore.
The nostalgia goggles don’t help matters. Objectively speaking, is DragonBallZ a good show? Is Elfen Lied? Is Wolf’s Rain? Is Madoka Magica a bad show? Is KILL la KILL? There are lots of places shows like this could improve, but comparing them across the years, what REALLY makes one group better or worse than the other?
So that brings us to the final question….
Did KILL la KILL save anime?
More appropriately, can ANY show “save” anime?
The answer is no. Not today. Not in our culture.
The next big anime boom will be when animation is taken seriously as drama. And predominantly, in the West, that is still not the case. Perhaps when we are older, looking back, and our kids get involved, and we are the corporate executives, and we are the ones making the financial choices about what is worth air time (or whatever media evolves into by then), that WE give it a shot. Not because of profit margin, but because we know it CAN work. Not some baby boomer who feels like Vietnam was twenty years ago and adjusts programming to lead into Carson still.
But personally, I feel KILL la KILL cannot save anime, because it doesn’t need to be saved.
I believe all the elements are there, in all those shows we watch, they’re simply being stifled.
Allow me to draw a Star Trek comparison. You probably know about Star Trek, specifically, the newer series, Captain Picard, Riker, Data, Worf rubber face, what is generally called “the Next Gen Era” (as three of the four shows aired since 1987 take place in the same in-universe time period). Specifically, I want to talk about Deep Space Nine.
Ira Steven Behr, sometimes known as Blue Beard the Pirate, or more often known as that guy behind the 4400, worked on Star Trek TNG back in the early 90s. Around this time, Gene Roddenberry, creator of Trek, died. Executive production and helm of the Star Trek ship fell to Rick Berman. Both men, Roddenberry and Berman, had serious, serious problems. For Gene, it was “the box”. His idea was that Humans in the future would not have interpersonal conflict, would not mourn the loss of a pet or parent or child, would not….basically, would not drama. This is why the first two years of TNG are abysmal. Enter Behr, who felt that the consequences of the universe being presented, and the Federation so championed on the show, were not being properly explored. And so began Deep Space Nine, the black sheep of the Trek family
Full disclosure, Trekkies, I am one of the fans who loves DS9 to death and basically shuns the rest. I’ve watched the rest of trek, but only one series would I bother to specifically spend money on.
Deep Space Nine was, undoubtedly, partially influenced by Babylon 5, at least in concept. Details change dramatically once you get away from “space station”. But both shows were very gritty ways of exploring sci-fi. Dark, contemplative themes on the whole. The hope usually came in the form of “Well, the heroes didn’t die this week, so maybe tomorrow will be better.” One week love interests on TNG departed amicably, or left on extraordinary journeys. Love interests on DS9 were murdered, arrested, or committed suicide in a noble cause.
Among the writers for DS9 was Ron Moore. You may recognize that name as the man who revived a re-imagined Battlestar Galactica to TV in 2003. After DS9, Moore and Robert Hewitt Wolfe, another prolific writer for DS9, would go on record talking about the many times Rick Berman held their leash from breaking out of the box. So enter Moore’s Galactica, widely regarded as one of the shows that dragged science fiction into the modern era. Into the mainstream, as it were.
Of the shows we’ve examined in detail here, not just in Galilei Donna, but in Strike the Blood, and Unbreakable Machine Doll, and Nobunagun, there have been positive elements. The chase scene in the pilot for Galilei Donna was brilliant. We had all of the information, regarding what was happening, and information about Hozuki’s character, without a single line of obnoxious dialogue. Talent IS there.
There ARE people with souls in the anime studios. But for whatever reason, they aren’t pulling the strings yet.
Or perhaps those same people from ten years ago have just gotten soft. Maybe they aren’t edgy and artistic and burnt out. Perhaps the hippy rage against the machine is dying out with the rise of new nationalism in Japan. It is impossible to pin on any specific cause. And it may be just that simple.
God Willing we Meet again in SpaceBalls2: The Search for More Money.
It’s not enough that people want to hype that anime needs saving.
Now we’re doing it in worldwide style.
Space Dandy and Sailor Moon are going to great effort for simultaneous world release.
Let me go on the record and say: This is retarded.
Space Dandy has been proving itself a success. I see jokes about it in the oddest of places. But, personally, I don’t feel this is any great strength of Dandy (frankly I don’t feel Dandy has many strengths period), and more the fact that Adult Swim had its arm twisted to show it in a reasonable time slot it is seeping into that common culture thing I mentioned before. Any -competent- show could be aired in this timeslot and have just as much success. And as I said in its review, I think Space Dandy is a success because it’s basically anime Family Guy.
Will Sailor Moon do the same? Who knows. But I fear the lesson learned will be the wrong one, that it is the HYPE HYPE HYPE EXPOSURE! that makes a series successful. It isn’t. It’s just being able to entertain.