Hey, Answerman! Cartoon Panacea
by Brian Hanson, Jan 13th 2012
Hello friends and neighbors! Not that any of you are my actual neighbors or anything. I just wanted to sound friendly.
Either way, welcome to this week's Hey, Answerman! Now that some of the dust has cleared from the Bandai Entertainment retirement, I can answer some questions that AREN'T about the anime industry's slow and painful death! Well actually there's one question in here that's sort of about that, but it goes in a bit of a different direction so I threw it in here anyway. I'm just happy to answer some questions that aren't as speculatively dark and dire!
Looking at the Winter Previews makes it clear that originality is a highly valued commodity. I wonder about the fairness of this expectation and if unoriginality should really result in a lower score. They make it sound like it's so easy to just pull new ideas out of thin air. As a writer yourself what do you think of this? I imagine if you sat there and only start working on your next play when you knew you had an original idea that's never been done before you wouldn't get much done. Even if you did come up with such an idea, originality is impossible to prove and extremely easy to disprove. Heck, the fact that it's a play is unoriginal in the first place! Guess you have to invent an entirely new medium!
And what if the story is unoriginal, but you don't care because it's the story you want to tell? Judging by the prevalent attitude the story is next to worthless no matter what you do. So is unoriginality really a bad thing, or should people learn to like the tried and true?
This is a common problem that extends far, far beyond just this anime and manga world. This question delves deep into the hearts of anyone who writes about movies, music, video games, et cetera.
Essentially, there's always a disconnect - either wide or small - between the people like us here at ANN, who eat sleep and breathe anime and we are basically honor bound to review and nitpick every animated thing that crawls out of Japan, and the fans who simply enjoy it on a much more casual level. Same with film critics, bloggers, anything. Your average Joe or Jane, by and large, isn't terribly interested in watching, hearing, or reading things that are, in a sense, unproven. And that's no slight against them, at all - biologically we're bred and wired to seek out the same things we've enjoyed before, again and again, to the exclusion of the things that are, at some level, scary and unknown. As much as, say, "The Artist" is sweeping up every film award under the sun, nobody's really going to go see that movie in any sizable number. It's a black-and-white silent film with French moviestars. Bleh. Bring on "The Devil Inside!" Bring us this warmed-over, poorly-executed rehash of The Exorcist and the Paranormal Activity movies! Because culturally we all know, when we fork over our ten dollars, what we're going to get - and it's stuff that we've already liked before. Meanwhile the film critics and the bloggers and the intelligentsia rebel against that because they've seen garbage like The Devil Inside so many times over the years that it basically makes them numb. Unless there's something exceptional about the execution of those familiar elements, the critics are dismissive and untoward, whereas the rest of the populace are equally dismissive of those same critics and wind up paying money to see a crappy movie anyway. Who the hell do those "critics" think they are, anyway? Telling me I can't like the things that I like! I'll show 'em! Even if the execution is lousy and everything sucks.
Ah, the execution! See, that's the key to solving both of those issues. That's the way to bridge this so-called "gulf" and garner the acclaim and interest of both the critics AND the general audience. THAT'S the reason The Dark Knight was a highly-regarded, award-winning film AND a billion-dollar box office sensation. The common misconception on both sides of the aisle here is that the critics are snobs, and the audiences are idiots. Which just isn't true. Any critic worth their salt can forgive a crummy premise if there's something unique and exemplary about the execution of all those familiar elements. Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn't "new" in any sense when it was released - it was assembled from the detritus of cheesy Saturday-afternoon serials and James Bond movies, but it's still one of the best and most entertaining movies ever made. At a primitive level, there's something to be said for an old story told exceptionally well. For a more recent example, I put Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in my ten best movies of last year; there's nothing in that "story" that hasn't been done a million times, but who honestly cares how derivative it all is when it's that exciting and well done? And for an audience's perspective, we might make mistakes and wind up seeing something awful like The Devil Inside because it pushes all the right buttons in its marketing campaign, but nobody's going to pay to see that movie twice. Which is, coincidentally, what they did with The Dark Knight; audiences are smart enough to pick up on a solidly executed piece of entertainment too, and that's what separates the mega-blockbusters like Christopher Nolan's Batman movies and weekly forgettable dreck like... well, everything else.
This season, the consensus so far is that Bodacious Space Pirates is this season's "Show To Watch," and really, there's nothing there that we haven't seen before in anime. Space opera? Cute girls? Seen it. But it's getting such high marks because it's well-paced, handsomely animated, it doesn't aggressively pander to anybody, and you can tell from watching the show that the creative talent involved took their time to spruce up this well-worn premise into something... unique.
On their own, it's one of those things where neither the critics nor the audiences are "wrong," really. The critic's job is to try and bring to everyone's attention the truly special pieces of whatever medium they're writing about, but at the end of the day the general audience is simply more likely to go with their gut instinct and spend their precious leisure time watching and enjoying the sorts of shows, movies, and music that they've liked countless times before.
I mean, speaking as a critic, I would personally love it if every season we had new shows that AREN'T based off of existing properties that AREN'T a mishmash of familiar elements. And speaking as a writer, there's nothing HARDER than attempting to come up with something "original." Which is why, honestly, I don't bother trying to assign to myself whether what I'm working on is "original" or not. I'm more concerned with doing something, I dunno, good and honest. I've never had any preconceptions that any of the plays or scripts I've written were "original," because they're not. I'm hardly the first person on the planet to stage a play with a bunch of miserable young people complaining about their lives. So I don't worry about that, and instead I focus on the important stuff. The nutrients. Making sure the characters are fully realized, making sure the dialog sounds natural, making sure my jokes are funny and the emotional moments are earned. And I can't be the guy to say for sure whether or not I was successful - I'm kind of a biased source, you know - I can say that I tried my best.
In your last Answerman column you addressed Bandai leaving the NA licensing/new release market. And of course people probably still remember TokyoPop closing its doors too.
But given that, and given the failure of TokyoPop and their original properties specifically, do you think this is an opportunity for American comic publishers to pick up the slack? You said yourself last week that one of the things that needs to happen is to have interesting stories with wider appeal and avoid simply pandering to Otaku. American comics would at least be able to readily tap into the American zeitgeist and avoid the "Galapagosization" (yes, it's a real word apparently) that people complain about with manga - they just need to move past the "dark age" superhero stigma that's been lying around since the 90s.
American "cartoons" are at least showing it's doable - from all the way back to Batman: The Animated Series (which is at least half a Sunrise production, incidentally) to the current incarnation of Thundercats, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Avatar: The Last Airbender (probably the most successful example) and even stuff like Kim Possible and even My Little Pony. There's also a lot of crossover audience with those shows and the adolescent to adult anime audience too. So is this a harbinger of a future trend that could supplant anime's popularity or just a temporary blip on the radar? And why hasn't there been a corresponding shake-up with how "traditional" American comic books are seen (with past examples, such as DC Comic's Vertigo label having mixed results at best)?
Galapagosization - "A phenomenon in which technologies and technical standards developed by Japanese companies are overly concentrated on the Japanese market, which resulted in creating standards that are only accepted in the Japanese market, causing a major hindrance to the global deployment." I'd say that hits the nail on the head.
I'd be much more inclined to agree with your hypothesis about cartoons and comics picking up the anime/manga slack if the, er... cartoons and comics industry was a lot healthier than you're assuming it to be. Neither of them suffer from Galapagosization, sure, but in fact I'd say that they suffer from sort of the reverse problem - so much of comics and animation is so homogenized and eugenically sterile as to be completely unremarkable. Everyone always points to Avatar: The Last Airbender, but that show is over. It's been over since 2008. In the 3-year interim, what other show has filled in Avatar's sizable shoes? Nothing, really. It's nice that people seem to like the new Clone Wars show (which I haven't seen, because that movie they made to introduce the show was so f***ing dreadful) and Thundercats, but man, people loved Avatar. They loved it. For an American animated series to truly capitalize on the loose pockets of starved anime fans, they need to make a good show that people love.
And for comics - the comics industry is in this bizarre state of affairs, really. Everybody on the planet knows and loves Batman and Iron Man and Spider-Man, but that's only because we all loved those movies they made. With a few exceptions, those same characters sell as my print copies of their serialized adventures as they always have. In some cases even less. Which, of course, prompted DC Comics to literally push their Panic Button and launch their New 52 initiative, which seems to be a success in a lot of ways - they've sold a lot more books, for certain - but it's also been met with its own share of criticisms.
Just as an aside, I would personally love it if more anime and manga fans checked out some of the fantastic titles put out by Vertigo - and not just the obvious ones like Sandman; I'm talkin' stuff like Fables and Animal Man - but, let's face it. Even hardcore comics geeks aren't always on board with Vertigo. See above, RE: nutritious and unconventional stories versus well-worn comfort food.
And really, the big elephant in the room is... does it even really matter? I mean, are there enough underserved anime and manga fans to really make a difference to either industry's bottom line? I'm not convinced that there is. The BIG market that either cartoons or comics could potentially steal away from anime and manga are girls, and uh, if you clicked that link above, you'll notice that there's sort of an "image" problem, there. And for the American animation industry, the demographics are completely wrong - Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network aren't trying to score ratings from teenagers and up, and that's anime's bread and butter.
That's enough of my speculating, though. Given the very homogenized way that cartoons are made here in the West, and the rather middling sales of comic books in general, it's just difficult to imagine another Avatar: The Last Airbender getting made. It would be great if they did, though. Everybody loved that show. I mean, again, I'd be the one weird guy who would be pushing executives to produce good cartoons and comics. But what the hell do I know? I'm just some snobby critic. Hurr.
Why are fan subbers and fan "rippers" often lumped together? Why aren't they treated and considered as two different sets of people? Especially since a lot of fansub groups are actually staying out of the way of Crunchyroll and licensors either on principle, or when they do a decent job on the show (examples of this are GG, Zanthur, KAW, Phantom...etc.)?
Oh, we do treat the two groups differently. For the most part.
We're all understanding, to a certain degree, that fansubbing has its roots in the foundation of modern anime fandom, and that even to this day they're sometimes able to provide a show to an audience that would be otherwise unable to view it. Of course, those defenses are getting weaker and weaker with each season, as Crunchyroll and The Anime Network and Viz between them tend to simulcast virtually every single show that airs, and as a result fansubs exist either as a point of pride or because the leechers want Hi-Def video files on their hard drives so they don't have to be bothered to, say, buy a DVD. Anyway, I've stated before that I think fansubbing in this day and age of simulcasting just feels like a waste of effort and hubris, but I'm not insensitive (mostly) to those who still defend fansubbing. At least for the people who live in those dreaded OTHER REGIONS of the English-speaking world.
I mean, nobody likes the "rippers." They're entitled pricks and pirates and thieves. I remember I was at the ANN panel at Anime Expo a couple years back, and Zac riffed that, and I'm paraphrasing here - "I'm just picturing these guys, these rippers, going up to a woman at a bar, and trying to impress them. 'Yeah. Yeah, I'm the guy that, uh, rips the official Naruto episodes from the Viz server and then puts them on Bittorrent.'" It's insane entitlement and it's outright piracy. And worst of all is that it's lazy. Nary a calorie or a synapse is burnt by stealing a video file and uploading it and slapping your shitty "group" name on the file. What kind of "credit" are they looking for? It's nuts.
Sad to say though, but the lines between fansubbers and outright pirates are getting blurred, more and more, with each passing season. A couple of years ago, obscure and/or "difficult" shows would never have found their way over in English, for good or ill, depending on your point of view. Now, a lot of them are, and many fansubbers still keep on translating their own episodes. Even with stuff like One Piece and Naruto! And while sometimes a sense of stubbornness is admirable, it seems a little... I dunno, Quixotic to keep fansubbing shows that being legally simulcast because of disagreements with the "integrity" of the translation, or the font, or anything else.
I'm going to go ahead and call a spade a spade here. I think this is because... people love to put their names on something and take credit for it. No matter how small. I mean, thank GOD [epic-fail]FReAK got credit for typesetting on that Naruto episode! I mean, far be it for me to try to deny people the satisfaction of feeling like they've accomplished a job well done and all that, but I just feel like... more and more, as streaming video becomes ever more ubiquitous and available either over our computers or through our TVs and our iPads and iPhones, fansubbers are still waging a figuratively noble but futile battle against the tide of content delivery.
But, hey, so long as this streaming system isn't perfect - and it isn't, because unless you live in the US you're not getting everything you probably want - fansubbers and rippers will still exist. My honest to God hope is that companies like Crunchyroll continue to offer creative solutions to these piracy concerns instead of relying on draconian tactics like SOPA.
And speaking of content delivery! Last week, my lungs filled with the ashes and smoke from Bandai Entertainment's burning, sinking ship, I wanted to quiz all of you a little bit about... the future.
Let's start with Mark, whose intelligent reasoning and even-temperateness rivals even my own, if I might say so myself (and I did):
While the news of Bandai's retreat from the R1 DVD and manga market is unwelcome, and the layoffs at Media Blasters another sign of the bad times for anime suppliers, I don't think we're seeing the death throes of Japanese cultural imports. Instead I think it's the slow demise of the DVD format and to a lesser extent paper books, that has cut into the profit margins of these companies and they don't seem to have a way to recoup these losses. The ways that we consume anime and manga have changed and this change has caught these media companies without a viable business model.
In today's world, when I can see, legally or otherwise, the latest anime releases the same day that they're released in Japan, what incentive is there for to wait for a DVD? If I can get manga on my ereader/tablet/phone, why would I wait months for a publisher to ship a hard copy to my local bookstore (assuming I have a local bookstore)?
I believe the demand for anime and manga in the United States is still very strong and as long as quality products are being produced, we will watch and read them, but I think the idea that we're going to wait months or years for someone to release a product is no longer correct. A new business model will need to be developed that recognizes the fact that (in my opinion) DVD and Blu-ray technology is no longer going to dominate the market and companies depending on the sales of discs are going to have to be more selective in what they release and perhaps find some other source of revenue.
Payne, however, is less than enthused:
Honestly, as much as I hate to say it, I think Bandai leaving the industry is a very bad sign, mainly because it seemed like Bandai knew what they were doing. The time between Japanese and U.S. releases was significantly shorter than it was with, say, Funimation. They knew when to supply a dub and when to release sub-only. They didn't hold on to old licenses that stopped selling. They had T.V. exposure. They streamed their popular titles. Most importantly, between 2007-2011, they had at least one solid hit per year. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star, Gurren Lagann, Code Geass, and most recently K-ON! They may not have flooded the anime market with anything that might sell a few copies or stick only to a couple guaranteed hits like Viz tends to, but they seemed to be standing on pretty solid ground. Their status as a company that exists in Japan and the U.S. gave them quite a few advantages, especially once Geneon left the equation.
The fact that Bandai is leaving the scene might not mean that the American anime industry is doomed, but it clearly doesn't mean things will be improving any time soon. Especially since I can't look forward to buying Nichijō any more.
Thanks for reminding me, B.J. - gotta track down that Blue Submarine No. 6 DVD ASAP:
First of all, I wish to express my gratitude to Bandai for being a major force in my personal interest in anime. Sure, I watched DBZ and Samurai Pizza Cats with the rest of you, but it wasn't until Gundam Wing that I saw the potential for anime to really tell a deep and complex story (as well as have awesome sci-fi battles!). While Gundam Wing may not have aged as well as others, it brought me out of casual watching to straight up anime fandom. Following up with Outlaw Star, Blue Sub Six, and Big O helped as well. I hope Bandai can still find a way to get us more Gundam in the future, even if it isn't directly from them.
Of course, the big news with Bandai has led a lot of people asking these big, general questions about anime fandom in America. I actually answered a similar question at another website, but that website wasn't anime-centric so I digressed into a bit of anime history that I won't bother with here, so allow me to dive right in.
A survey of anime's history in America has shown that its popularity seems to come in waves, each one bigger than the last. For a while, I believed that we were simply in another lull (which wasn't helped by the recession) and that another big wave could potentially surge here in the next few years, but my thoughts have since changed. I would argue that these previous waves were mere opportunities that anime companies had more control their own availability. With Voltron and Robotech, they found one in the holes of mainstream television. The late 80s and early 90s was dominated by direct-to-video releases and old-school blood-sweat-and-tears fansubs with the advent of VCRs. The late 90s and early 00s took advantage of the expansion of cable networks. The point is that they had to either elbow in a spot in a competitive market (television) or just throw it on the shelves and hope that someone would pick it up among all the other options.
However, the internet has changed a lot of things in the past ten years, and the biggest element about its impact is its near limitless space for anything. As a result, nothing really goes away. It may lose its crowds but there will always still be a following, and a small following can feel huge when collected on a website's community. I look around and see that both the old and the new are equally available, as well as the mainstream and the obscure. Music fans are finding all sorts of new genres almost forgotten by time as much as they get the latest new material. Weird, old TV shows find space on Hulu and Netflix next to the latest prime-time offerings, and the same can be said for movies . . . . . . and anime. The internet has proven to be a force to be reckoned with, from finding and making friends to starting and completing revolutions. Simply by watching all of the events and reactions surrounding the SOPA and Protect IP Act provides evidence of people struggling to understand and embrace the scope of what the internet has become and all of the change it brings.
This may seem to be a bit roundabout, but my point is that the anime industry isn't "DOOMED!?!?@#$*%^&@". It's just in another state of transition just like every other form of entertainment. Is internet streaming the answer? I don't know, but I can tell that these anime companies haven't given up on the idea yet, and by having such a broad and dynamic list of titles available at the click of a mouse, anime is more available than it has ever been. While I'm not expecting some kind of renaissance with a new Pokémon or DBZ, I think that anime fans and companies can look forward to a slow growth that reaches out across the internet and around the world. I know this may seem like the wrong thing to say to the internet, but I really think patience and prudence are important to eventually reaching the kind of healthy success that we think this niche of entertainment deserves.
Or course, the ultimate sign that internet-streaming-anime is working is when Bandai-Namco finally offers every piece of Gundam anime online. MAKE IT HAPPEN!
Don't think you can dance on the 4Kids grave just yet, Sam, since it seems like they won their Yu-Gi-Oh! case:
Is the Anime Industry DOOMED?! Is this THE END?!?!
...Not really. Or at least I don't think so. In my eyes, the Industry is merely slowing down. And I'm just fine with that. We need anime makers to slow down and come up with stuff that's new and well made instead of crapping out cookie cutter shows of iffy quality like they'd been doing until recently, which is partially what got us in this mess in the first place.
The otaku need to stop acting like it's the end of the world and calm down for a minute to think things out. Yes, it's a shame that several companies have gone down in recent years. But I blame that on the unfortunate state of the economy, which has hurt & killed many a once solid business. And many distributors rise and fall all the time in the entertainment world. I don't see the failures of various anime companies as a sign of the “Anime Apocalypse”, but just another sad case of a business failing for whatever reason like has happened so many times before (and I will dance on 4Kids grave).
I'm going to take things one day at a time and deal with events as they happen. Panicking over a dire situation (which might not really be so dire) isn't going to help one bit. Hell, it'll just make things a lot worse than they really are. The fate of the Anime Industry is not for us to know, let alone jump to conclusions about. Que Sera Sera, ya'll!
Eh, I'm sure we'll still see some Gundam again before too long, Ted:
To get things started, I don't think that Bandai's withdrawal of new material will bring the end of the anime industry to America, but it may be a sign that the anime industry will be smaller of a niche than it will ever be. To put it straight, Bandai hasn't been putting out popular material in recent years, other than the Kyo-Ani material, and even that didn't really help keep Bandai afloat. And the licenses that they cancelled, all if not most of them were in my opinion not going to do well over here anyway. For example, Nichijō, it's a funny show, but even the Japanese releases were not that successful. The only time I've seen an anime not do well in Japan but very well in America was Big O, and that was about a decade ago. Turn-A Gundam was another show that Bandai cancelled, and based on the premise of the show and who the target audience of that anime was, I wasn't thinking that it would do well here anyway.
I don't see a lot of changes here in the industry in terms of licensing, except that we may never see more Gundam come out over here. I wouldn't be surprised if someone like Funimation or Sentai Filmworks picks up something like K-ON or Haruhi Suzimiya, but I can't see them picking up a giant robot show like Gundam. In terms of how much product they are going to release, they already said that they were going to keep their older titles in print until that particular show's license expires, so their demise is not even going to come close to the effect of what happened with Geneon. So is the industry doomed because of Bandai's demise, no, but I don't think that the industry will be as successful as it was in 2006. But then again, we've been seeing that for a while now, have we?
And finally, Andrew wants to sow the seeds of compromise, and also gives me a great idea for next week's question:
Like everyone else I was shocked and sadden at the recent news about Bandai Entertainment. The company I had always associated with Gundam anime had to severely downsize itself to survive. Not surprisingly this has restarted the whole argument of fansubs versus buying actual DVDs again. Even Kotaku posted their own opinion, which Funimation later shared. And now here's my take on this matter....
"Is the anime industry doomed?" The short answer is no. While many North American anime companies have bit the dust, in my opinion Funimation is still going strong. However, the anime industry in general has been forced to take a good and long look at itself. Obviously things need to change for the better and soon, or the availability of anime will become miniscule.
As for the argument about fansubs versus DVDs, there is no answer that can satisfy both sides.
On the extreme side of fansubbing, there will always be anime fans who want to either watch the newest anime or rewatch a beloved older anime for free. Is it selfish of them? In a way, yes. They want anime when and where they want it on their own terms. Yet from what I've seen most of the time this way of thinking doesn't work. It's not a wise decision to cheer on your friends to watch the latest fansubs but refuse to support your friends' decision to buy it on DVD.
Now we come to the anime companies who function outside of Japan. There's more than enough reasons to explain why anime on DVDs has slowed down. By now every anime fan should be generally aware of all the steps it takes to create a dubbed version of your favorite anime. I don't think anime companies can keep up with the constant demand for new material. These anime companies have to ensure that by the time they release an anime on DVD there's still enough demand to make their money back.
So this means a compromise must be found. Right now I think the only one is for anime companies to start streaming anime more often. Hire the best fansubbers part-time to sub new anime. I believe this has been done in the past but not on a large scale. For example, thanks to Funimation streaming Princess Jellyfish on their YouTube channel I was able to watch the entire series for free. And you know what? I plan to buy it on DVD. That's what needs to be done. Create a fun and free collaboration where anime fans can watch new anime where the product looks so great people will want to purchase the DVDs.
And that's all for the doom-and-gloom Bandai talk. Next week, though, I'm going to bring out everybody's FAVORITE dead horse for another spirited round of flogging! Just kidding. Sort of. I think I've found a somewhat interesting way to discuss it at least, so let's see how all of you respond:
Now you've got this week's question, and it's time to get answerin'.
For those of you new to Hey, Answerfans!, I'll explain the concept.
Believe it or not, I'm genuinely curious what you think.
That's right; as much as I love the sound of my own voice, I do love to listen to what other people have to say on a subject. I'm finding that over the last few years, the attitudes, reasoning and logic that today's anime fans use eludes, confuses or astounds me; I have so many questions for you, and I'm dying to hear what you have to say in response.
Welcome to Hey, Answerfans!
Basically, we're turning the tables. Each week I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to email me your answer. Be as honest as you can. I'm looking for good answers; not answers I agree with or approve of, but good, thoughtful answers. People feel passionately about these subjects and I'd like to see that in the responses I get. I'll post the best answers I get, and maybe some of the crappy ones. Sometimes there may only be one or two good ones; sometimes five or more. It all depends on what I get in my inbox! Got it? Pretty simple, right? Start writing those answers and email them to answerman [at] animenewsnetwork dot com.
We do have a few simple ground rules to start with.
Things To Do:
* Be coherent.
* Be thoughtful.
* Be passionate.
* Write as much or as little as you feel you need to to get your point across in the best possible way.
Things Not To Do:
* Respond when the question doesn't apply to you. For instance, if your email response starts with "Well, I don't do whatever you're asking about in the question... " then I'm going to stop reading right there and hit delete.
* Be unnecessarily rude or use a lot of foul language.
* Go off-topic.
That's all for me, so good night, you princes of the coast! Remember though to drop me a line if you've got a question worth asking or an answer worth answering over at answerman[at]animenewsnetwork.com! See you all next time!
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