The freefall of Japan’s anime industry
Since its introduction more than half a century ago, anime has risen to become one of Japan’s most recognizable cultural icons. It has served as the initial contact between individuals and Japanese society, and has brought us the likes of Gundam, Pokemon, Astro Boy and Dragonball Z. Anime films like “Akira” have gone on to become cult classics, while the works of Hayao Miyazaki have been lauded as masterpieces around the globe.
Now, however, the industry is running the risk of becoming extinct.
To the casual observer, Japanese anime doesn’t seem to be faring for the worse. Such couldn’t be farther from the truth. Many Japanese who have considered a career in the anime industry have been put off by insanely low wages and the long, tedious hours required of its animators. As a result, the number of individuals working in the anime industry (and consequently, the number of anime series produced by the Land of the Rising Sun) peaked around mid-decade and have declined year after year. After year. After year.
It has reached a point where anime is bordering on the point of irrelevance. The lack of fresh faces in the industry has led to lack of innovation and save the occasional gem (“Code Geass” being such for myself), the same basic plot keeps getting recycled. People notice and go, “Hey, haven’t I seen this before?” generalize that the same must be true of all new anime series and move on from anime into other forms of entertainment. Less people watch new series, there’s less money to entice new animators and the cycle of decline continues.
It doesn’t help that new anime series are increasingly being directed towards niche audiences (“little girls” may give you an indication of what that means). I really don’t understand the reasoning behind it. It’s a cul-de-sac. The focus has led to a plunge in profits for anime studios and has made new anime series ridiculously difficult to understand unless religiously followed. And most mind boggling of all, they keep doing it! I know it takes creativity to make something truly artistic and sometimes that requires a bit of “encouragement”, but producers in the industry really do have to get off whatever they’re smoking.
Then there’s the whole economic aspect of the issue. The shrinking number of workers has led to a mass export of anime-related work from Japan. And by work, I do mean work-work. Jobs are going to Vietnam, India and Thailand, where tedious in-between frames are drawn and sent back to headquarters in Japan for final assembly. A shrinking number of jobs coupled with a shrinking number of workers can’t be considered a good thing.
You also have China and South Korea, which in their economic rise, have created a whole host of rival anime series in competing (with the Japanese) for the hearts and minds of anime lovers. I’m not against healthy competition. In fact, I’m all for it. The Japanese anime industry, however, seems to have turned inward and has refused to compete, and have basically given both the Chinese and the South Koreans the keys to the kingdom.
As with all other forms of entertainment (save maybe theater productions), piracy continues to take a huge chunk away from the bottom lines of anime studios. Such ultimately affects the developmental budget of future anime series and the future of anime as a whole.
So, what would I like those influential in the industry to take away from this article? Get your act together. Stop making lolicon, little girl series for otakus and focus on the more lucrative mainstream market. Stop committing cultural harakiri in outsourcing jobs to developing countries. And for pete’s sake, stop treating your animators like slaves and give them decent wages.
And you, Japanese government (I’m looking at you, Minshuto), stop seeing this as a minor issue and put some funding into the industry. You can afford to inject trillions of yen into the economy but can’t scrounge up enough to save part of your cultural identity?
Kira Yamato from Gundam SEED once said, “There are some things you can’t protect without fighting.” As part of Japan’s cultural identity and a tour de force in Japan’s soft cultural power around the world, both the government and anime studios have to realize that this is one of those things.