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Why Is Animation Only For Kids In The US?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asks:

In the United States, most people seem to be under the impression that animated works are primarily for children and families, while the same attitude does not exist in Japan. Yes, the western world has produced such works as the Heavy Metal films, Fire and Ice, Starchaser: Legend of Orin, or Korgoth of Barbaria, but those works are few and far between, compared to the wealth of child-oriented animated productions. On the other side of the world, Japan has equal amounts of animation for all age demographics, so I wonder; how did that attitude form in the west, and will it ever change? Will there be a renaissance of animation for older audiences? And before anyone mentions them, I am not counting Family Guy, South Park, or any series akin to them in this discussion, since they are filled with crude and vulgar content, compared the to mature and intelligent works that I mentioned previously.

Boy, this is an old canard that just refuses to fly away, isn't it? Anybody who's had enough exposure to Japan knows that this isn't true at all, but I still get this question quite a bit, particularly from newer fans. So let's go through this again for old time's sake.

First, let me dispel right now with the notion that animation is universally respected or considered a mature artform in Japan. It's not. Anime is a subculture -- it is not mainstream. The sort of anime that gets released nowadays can be fairly neatly be broken up into three broad marketing sub-groups: first, you have the super-mainstream stuff. There isn't a lot of this, and it's nearly all aimed at family audiences, much like a Pixar movie. In this pile you have Mamoru Hosoda movies and other family audience stuff like Giovanni's Island and TV shows like Sazae-san and Detective Conan. Studio Ghibli films were the most prominent anime under this umbrella. While there's some great filmmaking going on in this category, it's aimed squarely at a family audience.

In the second category, you have the stuff that's REALLY aimed at kids. There's stuff for boys and stuff for girls. There's Doraemon and One Piece and Naruto, there's also Aikatsu! and Pokémon and Yōkai Watch. While a handful of otaku watch these shows, they're broadcast basically to sell merchandise to kids. The producers are not aiming for an adult audience, and with the exception of hardcore anime fans, adults mostly ignore them -- although a handful of them do cross over a bit.

When those two categories of shows air on TV, it's aired at sane hours of the day, generally early evenings, when the kids are home from school and everybody's awake. To the vast majority of Japanese people, these two categories are all they think of when the topic of "animation" comes up. They are all aimed at kids or at family audiences. Most parents of anime and manga-addicted kids hope they outgrow it. Adults might read some adult-oriented manga on the train, but that's the extent of their involvement with the world of anime and manga.

And then you have the other stuff. The stuff made for hardcore fans, the vast majority of shows that we spend all our time here on ANN covering. These TV shows air in the wee hours of the morning. TV stations air them because the anime producers pay them to, like they're infomercials. They are aimed at a very small audience. These fans buy merchandise, soundtracks, expensive DVDs and Blu-rays. They follow voice actors, they attend events. It's estimated that there are only a few hundred thousand of these fans in Japan. These shows are absolutely not mainstream. In fact, if you ask a random Japanese person on the street about them, nearly all of them will have no idea what you're talking about.

Japanese otaku do not generally enjoy their hobbies openly. Most of them quietly obsess over their favorite shows and characters and voice actors at home, and with their own subset of like-minded friends, either in small groups or online. Many otaku are harshly judged for being anime fans by peers and co-workers. There have been lots of tabloid TV news stories about otaku, and due to a handful of ugly incidents involving offenders that were into anime and eroge, many people think that the whole scene is something to be ashamed of.

While you can find Naruto and Gundam and One Piece stuff everywhere in Japan, the vast majority of anime merchandise can only be found in places like Akihabara, or Maiden Road in Ikebukuro or Nakano Broadway or Den Den Town in Osaka. It is, by and large, a subculture, mostly tucked out of the way of public view. It is not mainstream. It is a subculture, and in that sense, it's very similar to how anime is in the United States.

Now, let's contrast that with America in its current state. The "animation is for kids" attitude was something we ran up against a lot back in the 90s, but honestly I don't see it nearly as much these days. Maybe that's because everybody under 40 grew up in a post-Simpsons age, and everybody 30 and under grew up in a post-South Park age. Maybe as a society we still have an unfair expectation that animation should be comedies, but I don't know many people that automatically assume anything animated is for kids anymore. Perhaps I'm sheltered, and in other parts of the country where people don't pay so much attention to popular culture some people still make that assumption, but given how popular adult animated comedies are nation-wide, you'd have to be pretty out of it to still cling to that stereotype.

Even under the guise of comedy, American animation has been able to do some spectacularly high minded stuff, AND draw a large audience doing it. You may not like the "crude and vulgar" content of South Park, but that show drove a lot of political discussion in the US during its heyday. Rick and Morty might not be your thing, but it has a lot of intelligent things to say about everything from mortality to societal power imbalances, AND it draws over 2 million viewers per episode. Even the show Archer managed to have some genuine moments when its namesake character was diagnosed with cancer, in between constant sex and substance abuse jokes. I don't know that I can really call any of those shows less mature than most late-night anime being made these days.

What are we complaining about here, really? "Mature" is often just a label that stands in for "being taken seriously." And it is true that animation is not taken seriously enough as an art form. That's true both in the US and in Japan, and it's frustrating to deal with. I don't know that Japan is moving in the right direction with its targeting of tiny niche audiences in this regard. But as for us, all we have to do is keep spreading the word, and showing people the good stuff that we think they might like. That's the only way minds change, and that's the only way people take an art form seriously.

Back in the early 1900s people didn't take movies seriously as an art form. They were seen as low-class novelties, something that an educated person would not waste their time with. And then the first truly major motion picture was released, a film that moved millions of Americans and earned the praise of the President himself. And then there were more, and gradually nobody argued against film as a respected art form. In order for art to be relevant to people, they have to be exposed to it, and it has to move them. That's something we can always help with.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the above mentioned film, unfortunately, was the savagely racist Birth of a Nation. But that's beside the point.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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