Thursday, October 24, 2013

2010: ANIME IS DEAD, LONG LIVE ANIME

Mike (@cinco_bajeena), a lapsed anime blogger, has the same origin story as plenty of other fans of a certain geography and age: a cloudy mix of Vampire Hunter D, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Macross Plus. You can occasionally find the telltale byline otou-san at Altair & Vega and Sea Slugs until his own blog returns from the deep again, as it probably will someday.



One of the calling cards of the aging anime fan, a relatively new species in the West, is his insistence that they just don't make 'em like they used to. And in the 21st century, a case could definitely be made for that. While the OVAs of the late 80s and early 90s heralded an anything-goes era of experimentation where the spectacular outweighed the sensical, anime in the post-industry-collapse world is increasingly marked by formula and safety: works that guarantee a hardcore otaku audience yet alienate other potential consumers.


But we've heard all that before. Years as recent as 2010 give us plenty of reason to believe this is the case — there's always hope.

Right?

Television's Conservative Cash Cows

Established TV anime franchises, both kid- and otaku-focused fare, saw a boom of theatrical films beyond the usual OVA releases: from Naruto to Nanoha, Crayon Shin-Chan to Gundam 00, extensions and retellings milked a few more bucks from parents and fans. Most notable among those are the sprawling and surprisingly ambitious The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya and the 30-years-later Space Battleship Yamato CG flick, the second-highest grossing domestic animated film behind Ghibli's Borrower Arietty.

Far safer than movie spinoffs, sequel seasons extended TV series' conservative runs of 12 to 24 episodes. A Certain Magical Index, Strike Witches, Arakawa Under The Bridge, and Hidamari Sketch all continued respectably (and three years later, Index's franchise is still going) as moe juggernaut K-ON!'s second season steamrolled the charts while drinking tea and eating cake. K-ON!! (more snacks = more exclamation points, I guess) shone even brighter in its second season, and it cemented its place with a wider audience—even girls! The girls of Houkago Tea Time were even recruited by the government of Kyoto to promote the census.


While Yamato or K-ON!! may have gotten the pundits pontificating on the re-emergence of mainstream anime appeal, late-night television anime seemed dead set on proving that the world of Japanese cartoons has crawled comfortably up the collective posterior of the otaku mega-buyer.
At least, there's plenty to support you if you want to see it that way:
  • Panty-obssessed "sudden magical girlfriend" clunker Heaven's Lost Property (Sora no Otoshimono)
  • Breast-fest Qwaser of Stigmata
  • Space catgirl caper Asobi Ni Ikuyo!
  • Chaste-perverse eroge harem Amagami SS
  • Middle-school underwear infomercial Chu-Bra!
  • Supernatural harem demo Demon King Daimao
  • Abominable incest "comedy" KissXSis
  • Sex-joke 4-panel adaptation B Gata H Kei
  • Sgt. Frog-goes-moe comedy Squid Girl (Shinryaku! Ika-Musume)
  • Generic tsundere fairytale saga Ookami-San
  • The unremarkable first anime entry in the Super Robot Wars videogame franchise
  • Obligatory Sengoku comedy short Tono to Issho
  • Anime version of the mega-harem manga that puts Ken Akamatsu to shame, The World God Only Knows
Most of those offer little to talk about. Don't get me wrong; among them there is certainly some redeeming and enjoyable content. Asobi Ni Ikuyo! in particular featured moments of great animation and a few very clever episodes. B Gata H Kei was charming and even funny at times, provided you can enjoy a sex comedy that possesses a child's understanding of the dirty deed. Squid Girl and Tono to Issho both provided some laughs, and even Chu-Bra! had its unlikely fans. However, at the same time, despite their numbers (Heaven's Lost Property, Amagami SS and The World God Only Knows especially sold quite well and inspired second seasons), most of these likely won't weather the eroding winds of constant new anime for long.


(These Kana Hanazawa-driven scenes notwithstanding)

The Age of the Light Novel

Some traces of the previous decade's domination by visual novel adaptations remained visible in 2010 (such as Amagami or the Fate movie), but the reign of tears by the nakige (Japanese for "crying game", where the goal was to induce emotional response in the viewer) was over. Jun Maeda and NaGa of nakige colossus studio Key even tried their hands at guns and rock'n'roll in an anime-original, Angel Beats!, ironically with enough success to transform the story into a visual novel.

But as it remains 3 years later, light novels owned our TVs. The "Raildex" franchise for instance was in its third series, now a mainstay. The complete-sentence-titles and other light novel clichés were ripe for a playful skewering in otaku's favorite brand of humor (self-referential) by the surprisingly clever light novel adaptation Ore no Imōto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai (OreImo). While online pundits are currently arguing that the maligned second season fell to the depths of becoming exactly what it joked about, the canny OreImo may yet prove to be an unlikely high water mark of the light novel era.

NOITAMINA (and its Competition)


Fuji Television's "noitaminA" programming block was in its fifth year, and one of its better ones by most accounts. Josei manga Princess Jellyfish gave us an enjoyable and occasionally embarrassing tale of dropouts, geeks, cross-dressers and other assorted misfits, told from a perspective that made its awkward protagonist an endearing and empathetic character to both female and male viewers.

On the flip side, Shiki is a tale of moral ambiguity that wants its viewers to examine whether vampires preying on humans is any worse than us eating a cow. It's a fairly well-written, taut and thrilling mystery more than a horror story, with a splash of BL that would make Anne Rice proud and some truly ridiculous hairstyles straight out of a '90s action title.


Perhaps most notable, a novel of college mishaps called (roughly) The Tatami Galaxy received a surreally hilarious take by one of TV anime's few auteurs, Masaaki Yuasa. The fast talking and over-the-top visual style (for more on that, as always Anipages has a great breakdown) didn't work for everyone, but the inventive visuals made it the first TV anime to win the grand prize for animation at the Japan Media Arts Festival.

Fuji TV and Aniplex tried—perhaps unsuccessfully—to launch something akin to noitaminA with their all-original block "Anime No Chikara" at the beginning of the year. Aniplex president Koichiro Natsume may not consider the project a rousing success, but he does credit it as a learning experience that paved the way to later original projects both with their A1 Pictures and outside studios: successful shows like Madoka Magica, AnoHana, and Guilty Crown (with the last two, ironically, as noitaminA titles).


Still, at least two out of three Anime No Chikara titles were enjoyable: Sound of the Sky, which successfully fused a dreamy postapocalyptic mono no aware with modern moe, and Occult Academy, a classic adventure romp in a Scooby-Doo vein starring a fairly badass thigh-high-clad heroine who, somewhat progressively, didn't really need a man. (I didn't watch Night Raid 1931, so I can't tell you just how revisionist the spy story's history of Sino-Japanese relations was, but I have a guess.)

Rolling Back the Clock and Moving Forward

For every Evangelion, there are plenty of Gundam Wings (low blow, I know), so it's important that when we talk about how anime is in a terrible state of generic panty-a-thons that we also remember to look at the best of the year—or at least the stuff that most resembles what the old guard used to call anime.

That of course means Cobra the Animation, a relic of the 80s dug up and shot back out into space with a cigar in his mouth and a woman (usually her derrière) in his embrace. From what I've seen, Cobra's TV run didn't strike me as drastically different from the Osamu-Dezaki-helmed 1982 flick, Space Adventure Cobra, or any of the manga's other small-screen iterations. It may not quite be the "Lupin in Space" that it promises, but it provides some of that good old-school misogynistic anime fun to which modern moe misogyny can't hold a candle.

Highschool of the Dead, while pulled from a much newer manga, is rife with the kinds of things that we loved about 90s OVAs: ultraviolence, giant breasts barely concealed under battle-torn clothes, unlikely action sequences with unlikelier guns, and gratuitous Western media references. Whether or not any of that's "good" in this case is up for debate, but it does squash the notion of "Cute Girls Doing Cute Things" having completely taken over the world. A notable calling card of the 2000s: we're guaranteed an otaku character these days, and he won't be sniveling and worthless the entire time—he might even get a girl.

(This video clip for Highschool of the Dead may be considered NSFW.)

For fans of Baccano!, one of the first hugely successful light novel adaptations of the 2000s, Ryohgo Narita's Durarara!! getting an anime was some of the year's best news. The Guy-Ritchie-esque bizarro crime caper didn't disappoint from either a critical or sales front, with its fandom spanning genders and oceans alike (the English dub aired the next year on Adult Swim in the US and DRRR! cosplay remains popular at cons).

Revolutionary Girl Utena and FLCL writer Yoji Enokido, fresh off cinematic hand-drawn adrenaline fest Redline, returned to TV with his Ouran High School Host Club director Takuya Igarashi for something of an Utena inversion in BONES's Star Driver. While Star Driver retained the ritualistic repetition and cross-gender appeal of that series (and the sexual undertones of all his work), the pair added flamboyant super robots and dialed up the goofy humor for a horned-up Saturday morning cartoon feel.


Speaking of which, the now-well-established Pretty Cure franchise entered its 10th year in style with the acclaimed installment Heartcatch Precure!. Consistently strong execution and a unique look for the franchise (thanks largely to highly dynamic character designs by Yoshihiko Umakoshi) made Heartcatch a yardstick for future Precure series, second only to the original. Its uncompromising action sequences and charming leads also helped cement Pretty Cure's popularity with demographics outside elementary school girls.

If pointing and laughing at the moe set is more your style, then Detective Opera Milky Holmes provided a convenient "kick me" sign. The now-classic archetype of the cute-klutzy dojikko received a thorough battering without the usual insiders' celebration that comes with insular otaku comedy; the series is, at times, just plain mean to its characters and what they symbolize. It's also raucously funny when it works, which admittedly isn't always, but those moments are worth the weaker parts. Milky Holmes may have been missed by fans who wrote it off as the very thing it ridiculed (hi), but it does function surprisingly well from both sides of the coin, like OreImo. It was also popular enough to warrant two additional seasons, an OVA, live tours (by seiyuu who rarely appear out of costume) and lots of figures.

This year also gave us a love letter to Western cartoons, a last hurrah for a fan-favorite studio team, and a unique TV anime experiment. Hiroyuki Imaishi and the gang at Gainax put some unlikely ingredients in a blender: Dirty Pair, magical girls, Transformers, The Powerpuff Girls, Drawn Together, Ren & Stimpy, and the art of Jhonen Vasquez, among others. They mixed the mess just slightly so the chunks were still visible, filled it with crude and immature jokes, and called it Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt.


Every episode features different styles, visuals, fart jokes, directors and animators, and none hold back for a second. Domestic sales were certainly not spectacular—it's a title bound to be divisive—but time will tell whether its influence will be felt in younger animators emboldened by its crazed free spirit (a Velvet Underground of anime?)

OVAs and ONAs

The era of the original OVA may have passed, but some do still get made in the form of "original net animations". In the "ONA-turned-OVA" department, the thoroughly bizarre Cat Shit One manga received a CG anime this year. It's not for everybody, but if you ever want to see hyperreal military combat by cute and fluffy CG bunnies, by all means please watch it.

A 2010 OVA by erstwhile Kyoto Animation staffer Yutaka "Yamakan" Yamamoto's Ordet studio has one of the more bizarre origin stories in recent history. Popular illustrator and character designer huke (Steins;Gate) posted a picture of a girl with cool jacket and a blue glowing eye to his Pixiv account that was apparently so compelling that Nico Nico DIY music star Ryo, mastermind of "doujin group" Supercell created a song based on it. Thanks to Supercell's online following and the Vocaloid/Miku Hatsune fandom (Ryo uses the Vocaloid software for Supercell's vocals), the character of Black Rock Shooter became something of an internet/otaku icon. More character designs followed, then this OVA, and eventually a noitaminA TV series in 2012. It's not what you'd call an amazing piece of anime—though it's plenty inventive in both narrative and visual styles—but its legacy as an internet success story inextricably tied to the heavily participatory Vocaloid fandom makes it unique, and arguably one of the most important events of the year.

* * * * *

So...is 2010 the start to the death knell of anime? Doom and woe? Or is it the same old song and dance for a different year? While the insipid, the irritating, and the just plain icky can seem to dominate if your glass is half empty, Golden-Ani has shown us that the pattern is the same as most years: among the dreck are a few standout titles, some of which will remain deservingly in our memories among the ranks of anime's best.

Next Time: One more trip back to 2007 before we wind things up...

3 comments:

  1. "(I didn't watch Night Raid 1931, so I can't tell you just how revisionist the spy story's history of Sino-Japanese relations was, but I have a guess.)" Less so that you might think, they had to cut an episode from the tv airing, it was broadcast online/on the DVDs instead, that doesn't shy way from the fact that the Manchurian incident was instigated by the Japanese, although aside from that it's been long enough since I've seen the show that my memories of it are a bit hazy.

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    1. Soooo.....where's the next year??? I'm aware these blogs are time consuming, but you've come so far! The anticipation....:D

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  2. Anime and anime blogs can never die as long as there are nerds out there to love them.

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