What Makes An Anime A Crossover Hit?

by Justin Sevakis,

Ahmed asks:

As a person who is unfamiliar with the way the anime world works, I've seen enough of peoples' reactions, including several of my friends', to know that Attack on Titan is really popular to the point where I'm slightly annoyed at how much it's being hyped (I just wish that Jojo's Bizarre Adventure was that well known). Anyway with that said, what exactly makes an anime generate so much appeal among the public? There are plenty of other anime out there that can be considered more compelling/interesting than AoT. So what makes it and other anime like it stand out amongst the crowd.

Japan has been trying for decades to make shows that will be big in the West, as well as in Japan. Their batting average is, sadly, pretty low. The truth is, while it's easy to look at a hit show and say, "this was obviously going to hit really big!" the truth is that hindsight is always 20/20. Here at ANN we've spent years trying to predict what shows will be gigantic successes and which will be duds, and frankly, we're wrong as often as we're right. (I remember, upon seeing a trailer and some artwork at Tokyo Anime Fair, getting really excited for Night Raid 1931. I sure can pick 'em.)

That said, if one surveys the gigantic hits from the last 20 years, there are definitely some very distinct patterns among them. They tend to follow the following rules:

• It has to be relatable to non-Japanese people

A whole lot of anime takes place in modern-day Tokyo or another very obviously Japanese city, with lots of attention paid to the minutiae of everyday life. It's fine to place an anime in a city, but Westerners tend to relate more strongly to shows that are in a less specific, more fantasy or sci-fi oriented setting. For many years the exception to this was ninja or samurai-related shows (feudal Japan is, for all intents and purposes, as implacable and non-specific as your standard issue Tolkien fantasy setting), but the last few years haven't offered much in the way of period-piece hits. When evaluating new shows for licensing, American companies very often factor in whether a show is "too Japanese" to be a hit with mainstream Americans. Also, the big hits tend to have fewer school uniforms.

• It needs to be action-oriented

Anime tends to rely a lot on internal monologues and angst buried deep within its characters for drama. Shoujo is often guilty of this, but sports anime is too. Most Westerners just want to see some action, and if they're going to watch animation, they want it to do something other than pan slowly over a character's troubled face. A show can have angst, but it has to play out visually in order for Westerners to really be interested.

Even if you dislike Miyzaki, you must admit that the dude does not make boring films. There's stuff happening constantly -- not just talking, or people looking horrified while we hear their internal monologues. All of the biggest mainstream anime hits throughout the years, from Ninja Scroll to Attack on Titan, from FLCL to Fullmetal Alchemist, have a ton of action, and very few talky lulls.

• It can't be too pervy

Americans used to be much more adamant in their belief that all animation should be kids' entertainment. Nowadays animation being adult in nature isn't really the problem it used to be. The bigger issue now is that most non-otaku simply have no great love for 2-D bodies, and lose interest if they're expected to oggle them. And since most shows that really get into showing off their characters' bodies are using titillation as their main selling point, there's often not much else about the show to get excited over. And thus, the non-otaku disconnect from the show entirely.

• It has to appeal to a broad range of ages

I'm not sure where this saying came from (or if it even is a saying), but there's a general rule of thumb when judging anime: good anime is one you want to show your friends, but a truly great anime is one that you want to show your parents. It's no surprise that my parents were fans of Macross Plus, Escaflowne and anything by Studio Ghibli. (I once even got my grandparents to sit through Whisper of the Heart... and like it!) Conversely, most of the other stuff we were watching growing up sent them fleeing the room. Looking back, my parents, with their somewhat open minds but extremely low tolerances for squeeky voices and sophomoric writing, were very good barometers for whether or not an anime would be one day considered a classic by the American mainstream. Not everyone's parents are as open (or closed) minded as mine, but in general, I get the feeling that most non-otaku parents will "get" the good stuff, and probably only the good stuff.

• It has to be GOOD

Shawne Kleckner once told me that the best, and really the only predictor of how well an anime would sell is whether or not the show is actually any good. It is true that anime that have become crossover hits haven't all been masterpieces, but the vast majority have been some of the better productions Japan has made in their respective eras. They've had at least consistently decent animation, pleasant artistic design, and stories that really grab hold of you. The good stuff does generally rise to the top in this business. Of course, there are always a few really great shows that completely face-planted, but this isn't an exact science.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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