Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Difference: The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Modern Anime

I'm pretty sure anyone reading this is probably aware that I'm a fan of anime and manga. I've been a fan since watching the original Dragon Ball and Robotech as a kid, and have been watching ever since. That said, it is hard to be a fan these days, and I'd like to discuss why.

So, it's time to dissect one of those articles written by industry insiders every two months or so to reassure otaku that nothing is wrong with their hobby. Despite all outside factors showing it is undoubtedly getting worse year by year, industry insiders remain in their shrinking bubble while their industry runs full-tilt down a dead end road.

This one from Crunchyroll is entitled The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Modern Anime, and Ambition in Storytelling. At this point, anyone who no longer watches anime probably already knows the difference between them, but let's dive into this article bit by bit.

Let me just mention: This is not a fisk, but a legitimate attempt to find common ground on a divisive issue that has been going on since Moe overloaded the airwaves in Japan.

But first, take a gander at this video from a few years back when the Moe boom was in full-swing. It will help bring this article into the proper frame.

Be warned: The video can get a bit risque.

Long story short, otaku pandering makes easy money for the studios. All these otaku want is to watch good looking girls (and boys) doing nothing at all. But because of this narrow focus, anime and manga have lost much of their international audience to a small cadre of superfans that aren't having children. In other words, the industry is playing to a shrinking audience.

To say the industry is not in trouble and should keep going the way they have been is foolish. At this rate, they will eventually run dry of profits and the industry will tank.

Starting on that foot, let's get started:
"Last week, popular internet writer FILM CRIT HULK published a very interesting article on Captain America: Civil War in which he also touched on the general strokes of where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been going ever since The Avengers."
I won't be touching that article, since it has nothing to do with my point here, but I do recommend reading it if you want to see where the authors are coming from.
"Now, while I cannot vouch for or argue against his specific points regarding the Marvel movies since I haven't seen any that have come out since The Avengers, one thing that caught my attention was his argument that Marvel Studios has is currently engaged in the making of movies that deal in "basic audience placation." Here's a quote from the article (and, again, I have no opinion on whether or not this is actually true of the Marvel films):


This is all well said, and it reminded me of some arguments I've seen leveled at the anime industry in recent years. "Moe is killing anime," is a common (if ofttimes tongue-in-cheek) refrain, but in my experience what it typically masks is a dissatisfaction with not merely changing aesthetics in character design, but with the types of stories that have come to be associated our moe overlords in the fandom conciousness—and with the way those stories are being told."
Character designs are becoming uniform and sterile. Particularly Moe designs.

Here are a few pictures from MyAnimeList comparing designs:

And finally:

Character designs have changed, true, but since this article wants to focus on storytelling, this will be the last time I'll intentionally bring this up. I realize these examples are cherry-picked, but it really can't be helped. There were no Moe-like series in the '90s, or earlier. The most similar series would be the Tenchi franchise, and it still doesn't look like any of the examples on the right.

As said before, it isn't that "Moe is killing anime", but that studios are catering to a minority of uberfans that don't buy anything else at the cost of their larger audience. This is why studios have gripped so hard on the success of anime like Blood Blockade Battlefront, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Ushio & Tora, Knights of SidoniaTiger & Bunny, Parasyte, and such, for overseas success in recent years. If they want to cater to the wider anime fanbase that isn't aware the industry still cares about their bucks, then they need to start producing more material for them, and less for fetishists and Moe fans.
"The same day HULK's piece came out, I also read an interview of long-time voice actress Megumi Hayashibara (Evangelion's Rei, Cowboy Bebop's Faye, among others) on her thoughts regarding the changes in the industry since the 1990s. Her reflections, again, echo phrases and complaints I've heard many times before. She says, "Anime in the ‘90s was overflowing with ambition…Anime [today] which are trying to be similar to previous hits can never be better than the originals.""
The article then posts this picture:

I think this would make me Team Iron Man
Do I even have to mention that they all have the same body-type and face? It's quite an uninspired picture full of uninspired designs. This proves Megumi Hayashibara's point of sterility on its own.
"Hayashibara laments contemporary anime's constant derivations on past hits while HULK argues we shouldn't settle for "basic audience placation" from our entertainment."
Actually, her point was that anime does not have the drive it once had to be creative. The industry rests on cliches and lack of ambition. It has nothing to do with the past except as a point of reference.

I'm really hoping this author doesn't sidestep the issue to make it about nostalgia. It's not really a point worth making, nor is it much of an argument.
"Films, and anime, have the capacity to do more than just be likable and fun for the audience (whether that's by storytelling choice or deliberate imitation). And if they have that capacity, shouldn't they do so? Shouldn't they be as ambitious and creative as possible, reaching for the heights of the medium?"
Blood Blockade Battlefront did. Ushio & Tora currently is. Tiger & Bunny was a mega-hit a few years ago, and still sells now despite fans endlessly awaiting a second season. My Hero Academia is a top ten selling series in Japan and is getting popular here in North America. Now tell me why I see more articles on mainstream anime sites about yuri series, video games, clothes, and Moe, than I do about any of the above series?

This season is the first in years where the non-Moe material has swamped the Moe material, and still the anime press insists on covering only it at the expense of higher sellers and series with more international appeal.

They're living in a box.

Ushio & Tora: Supernatural battle spectacle
Articles written about it: 0
For instance, these are the top ten selling manga series in Japan right now:
1. One Piece by Eiichiro Oda (6,470,105)
2. Assassination Classroom by Yusei Matsui (4,391,966)
3. Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama (4,370,941)
4. Haikyu!! by Haruichi Furudate (4,016,578)
5. Kingdom by Yasuhisa Hara (3,561,489)
6. The Seven Deadly Sins by Nakaba Suzuki (2,712,499)
7. One-Punch Man by Story: One / Art: Yuusuke Murata (2,553,331)
8. ERASED by Kei Sanbe (2,332,110)
9. Tokyo Ghoul:re by Sui Ishida (2,179,345)
10. My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi (2,135,591)
I see a bunch of different genres up there from Sports to Fantasy to Science Fiction to Superhero to Historical Drama to Horror. What do I not see? Moe.

The closest thing you'll see on that list will be Yotsuba & I in the 30th place, and that is a slice of life series that features characters of different sexes and ages. It's not Moe. There is also Dagashi Kashi, though that is a harem comedy.
"I'm not interested in applying HULK's specific issues with the Marvel films to anime as a whole (talk about comparing apples to oranges!)"
That's too bad, because I am interested. And they're easily comparable. Castle of Cagliostro is one of the best action adventure films of all time; Captain America: Winter Soldier is one of the best action adventure films of all time. Daredevil is one of the best action adventure television series of all time; Trigun is one of the best action adventure television series of all time.

Seems like apples to apples, to me.
"To begin, his phrase, "basic audience placation," is one I think can easily be applied to many anime that have aired in the past 5-10 years. In practice, HULK says the appeal of this concept is that it "makes the audience feel good and like they're hanging out with the [characters]." Well, maybe Marvel's behind the ball, because there are (and have been) an entire anime genres based around these precise goals (creating a cozy show where the audience can feel like they're just hanging out with the characters) for a while now."
Deliberate misreading. His point was that you are following characters as they achieve a goal or work to overcome a problem. You get invested in them and their problems as they fight to make things right, or put order back in place. Moe series by design are not like this.

How you went from Marvel's action films to a "cozy show" is beyond me. It's an apple to oranges equivalency. Neither aim to do the same thing.

But the MCU and anime both used to do the same thing. That's the problem here.

Audiences don't want to "hang out" with characters who do nothing except drink tea, make ham-fisted jokes, and have no story to advance, or character arc to get through. That is why Moe does not sell over here, and why Marvel movies do.

That is why Dragon Ball is so popular with fans the world over, and why no one except hardcore otaku know, or care, what K-On is.

My Hero Academia is the type of thing that would hook the MCU audience.
So, why isn't it being pushed?
"Although iyashikei anime and moegirl comedy slice-of-life anime differ in that they use atmosphere and comedy, respectively, as their primary means of achieving the goal of good audience feelings, the goal is ultimately the same."
Slice of life, is. But slice of life usually involves a plot that has a goal. BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad, for instance, is about a boy who grows into a rock star. Kimagure Orange Road is about a romance. There's a drive and a goal.

But, Moe? What genre do you think has the highest sales of bodypillows? What audience are those aimed at?

Here's a hint: It's not the average anime fan.

Some of these shows may have the goal of being entertaining, that's true. So why is it that those "inventive" and "imaginative" plots are never discussed? Why is it that they all feature the same archetypal characters that have the same personalities? It might possibly be because that is not why otaku watch those shows.

But then, the majority of international anime fans don't watch them at all. They don't sell.
"And yes, when you compare this particular creative priority to some of the great dramas of humanity that appeared in 1980s and 1990s anime, one could perhaps argue that these "cute girls doing cute things" shows are unambitious."
How is that an argument? They all feature the same character designs. They all feature the same (lack of) plot. They all have the same setting. They all feature the same character archetypes. The anime made in the '80s and '90s (and the '70s . . . and the '60s) do not have these problems.

Moe shows are unambitious. Whether you like them or not, is a separate argument.
"But are they?"
"And, if they are, is that bad?"
That wasn't your original argument. These are cookie cutter shows that appeal to a fringe segment of an already small audience. Fetishists and otaku in Japan might be willing to spend the equivalent of $120 on a three episode Blu-Ray, but the common fan and the international fan, are not. As mentioned before, catering to this tiny crowd is BAD for the industry. Catering to a shrinking demographic is bad business.

These are not the signs of a healthy industry. Neither is it something Marvel Studios* engages in.

*As an aside, Marvel Comics does engage in this, and their audience is now so tiny that they have to rely on shock storytelling to try to hook a larger audience. Marvel Comics is not a model for success.*

Moe shows themselves are not inherently bad. But their overall affect on the industry is a bad thing.
"What we have here is a conflict of what certains audiences want in their entertainment. In asking, "should anime be vast, grand space operas or should it be cute anime girls arguing about cats?" we are essentially interrogating two (supposedly) opposed ideas about what anime should be like. In common use, then, ambition as a term has become simply one way of phrasing a specific system of entertainment values, one that values creativity, scope, and depth above all else. In other words, when people talk about "ambitious anime," they typically use it to point to anime that are not in the business of derivation for the purpose of basic audience placation. Ambition is used to describe shows that are wildly creative, strive to be insightful or poignant, and actively try to tell meaningful and worthwhile stories. And, of course, the reverse then becomes true—any show that doesn't ascribe to this system can be labeled as "unambitious," which more simply can be equated to "bad." Ambition, as defined within a strict set of criteria, is good. Unambition is bad, or at least lesser in value."
What we have here is one approach that doesn't make enough money to be the focal point of the industry, and one approach that did, and still does. Everything you wrote here is completely subjective and doesn't really mean anything in the overall argument.

Ambition is about aiming to do more than be complacent. Moe shows, by design, do not aim to be anything above baseline. The only one that did was Azumanga Daioh, the first Moe show, and that has since become the single most ripped off anime series of all time in the process. Not that you'll ever see anyone in the anime press approach that elephant in the room. It's no wonder that the writer of that series doesn't write stuff like that anymore.

Made in 1999.
Yes, Moe is riding off a series that is 17 years old.
So much for the "new" anime argument.
Good and bad has nothing to do with it. But a pile of cliches and fetishistic character designs are not ambitious when they are literally the same as the majority of the anime currently being produced for consumption.
"To be quite clear: there is nothing about "ambitious" stories as defined above that makes them inherently better than "unambitious" stories. Fullmetal Alchemist is not innately better than K-On simply because Fullmetal Alchemist wants to tell an epic story and K-On wants to create a particular kind of relaxing atmosphere."
Full Metal Alchemist is a series that fans around the world wanted, and bought. K-On is not.

So, you tell me why there are more shows like K-On being made than shows like Full Metal Alchemist. If the quality of the two is entirely subjective, then it shouldn't make a difference. And yet, there are still far more shows like the former being produced than the latter. "Ambitious" stories are clearly getting left out in the cold.

Fans want ambitious shows that aim above the typical. That is why Full Metal Alchemist was an international hit. It doesn't matter how good K-On is if the international market isn't interested in it.
"It's to each their own—but, of course, we often struggle to see things from different perspectives."
No, I know why people like Moe. And, I mean, I know the many different reasons people like it. But I think it's you who doesn't see it.

One audience wants something they are not being offered, but once were. The other is swimming in what is being offered. The former is a large audience, and the latter is minuscule.

It is simply bad business.
"In the modern anime fandom, the tension between these different sets of entertainment values seems like it will never fade away. And, often, I see this dynamic arise in the form of "old anime was better!" Why? Because there are certain groups of anime fans, particularly (at least in my experience) those who have been fans of anime for much longer than I have been, who associate older anime with the epic story kind of ambition. And, from their certain perspective, they're not wrong—old anime was better."
The only tension here is that the majority has been ignored for years, while the minority got everything they wanted. The majority is not looking for old anime (unless they're collectors), they want new anime made with the ambition of the old.

And it doesn't help that the anime press ignores what that audience wants when it actually is made. World Trigger was the 20th top selling manga in Japan for the first half of 2016. It sold a million in less than half a year. Take a guess at how many articles Anime News Network has written about it recently.

And there you have it.

I've met many people online who were anime fans. They fell out of it because the industry stopped offering what they liked. But then, when I'd tell them about a newer show that has what they're looking for, they get excited again. You know why that is? Because they WANT to watch new things. They WANT to be anime fans. They aren't just sitting around waiting for a new Blu Ray release of Kimba the White Lion.

The anime press simply ignores them and continues focusing on their own niche tastes instead. Meanwhile, the industry closes in on itself, and those fans get nothing.

I don't see how that makes sense.
"Modern anime most certainly is not the same as it was in the 1990s, or even in the early 2000s. I'm a relatively new fan myself, so I've not seen as much as I'd like from those eras, but my limited experience has more or less seen the basic fact that anime has changed to be true. There has been a general shift in priorities in the medium, both commercially and in terms of what sorts of stories (or non-stories) are being told. While claims that moe schoolgirl anime (alongside the perennial whipping boy of magic high school light novel adaptations) is taking over the industry don't quite line up with the facts, the message behind them is actually rather obvious: there's an audience of anime fans that isn't being reached by the offerings of today—and they'd like their stories with ambition, high stakes, and audience challenge back, please."
Watch the video above. Moe anime is not made in proportion to the amount of anime fans that exist in the world, and that was a deliberate choice. It's a choice that is costing them now.

This "shift in priorities" has only succeeded in shrinking the industry of international appeal for a small audience that has no growth potential. Zero.

Anime in the '80s and '90s sold more because it was what more people wanted. The fact is, in recent years, we have been seeing a slow shift away from Moe and back into the types of stories that made anime big in the first place. This is what's needed for a healthier industry, both for storytelling and for sales.

This isn't hard to do. But as long as you in the anime press continue to push Moe that isn't selling well over Fantasy and Science Fiction that will, you're only hurting your own industry and turning away more potential fans.

And don't get me started on light novels. We went from Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Slayers, and Full Metal Panic, to Asterisk War, Chivalry of a Failed Knight, and Lance N' Masques, since the '90s. That is a full on downgrade of ambition and scope. Not to mention all three of the latter tell the same basic story.

Light novels are not in a good place right now, just like the anime industry. But they are just as much a part of the same problem.
"Again, we're talking about fundamental differences in audience priorities."
Yu Yu Hakusho, or Lucky Star.

Yu Yu Hakusho
Lucky Star
Which one do you think is closer to what Marvel does? Which one aired on a popular television block? Which one is popular worldwide? Here's a hint, it's the one that is still selling for its North American license-holder despite being a series over 25 years old.

So which direction should the industry be leaning? Because it's not leaning to the one that makes more money from a bigger audience.

If we're comparing the Modern Anime Industry to the MCU, there's the problem in a nutshell.
"The contemporary anime industry, to generalize in broad strokes, is catering to an audience that is seeking "basic audience placation" instead of epicness. One kind of ambition has been replaced with another."
There is only one kind of ambition: one that seeks to do better than the baseline average.

This is the baseline
Moe anime is the baseline. It is not ambitious, because it isn't made to be.

As for what the audience wants, well, it's not Moe. That's already been beaten to death in this post by now.
"I note this because I think it's important to understand where the nostalgia for a past era of anime and the slams of modern anime that sometimes accompany it are coming from. I mean, just look at recent comments from famed anime director Mamoru Oshii! An ungenerous read might call him a troll or a grouch, but read carefully! These are the words of someone who feels alienated from an industry that once had a place from him:

"I’m not watching anything. There are zero titles I’m interested in. I mean, I’m over 65. Trying to get into anime aimed at young people is impossible. That’s true for Japanese films in general, not just anime. Everything is made for a young audience.""
And what anime would Mamoru Oshii watch these days? Nobody is even making anime like he used to because the industry made a deliberate choice not to.

Even if you want me to grant your premise of this valid complaint being nostalgia and age-related, it doesn't explain why Moe anime still sells worse internationally than Action, Adventure, Thrillers, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. It doesn't make sense.

It also doesn't explain why Megumi Hayashibara's earlier assessment was wrong. She voice acted both then, and now. She watched anime both then, and now. Mamoru Oshii does not. Which one do you think would have a more accurate opinion on the way things are now, as opposed to then?

Let's not make this into an age argument. Those that bring up nostalgia goggles arguments are usually not looking at what the disagreement is really about.
"There are no easy solutions to that, but my hope is that I've established both the right for "unambitious" stories to exist and for those who wish for the days of yore to be dissatisfied with the current offerings of the medium. I don't think the answer is that the fans who are unhappy with the current state of anime should shut up and go find a new hobby. Nor do I think unhappy anime fans should give in to uninhibited bitterness about the current state of the medium. Both of these options are short-sighted and, as I see it, pretty dumb."
The easy solution here is not one the fans can make. The industry has to look in on itself and realize what is the best way to make it healthy again, and provide the majority of their customers what they want.

This doesn't mean they have to stop making Moe anime. This doesn't mean dismissing the majority of anime fans as old people who should not be catered to. This means looking at what sells best worldwide, and which audience has the greatest growth potential for the future.

I think recent shows like Knights of Sidonia, and The Seven Deadly Sins, are the best indicators at the direction the industry should look into. There's a reason Netflix jumped on them for exclusives, and not the newest Moe anime.

And before anyone brings up Glitter Force (or Pretty Cure), that is Magical Girl anime. It's not Moe by virtue of it having a plot, action, characters with goals, and a moving story. It also has broader appeal worldwide than Moe does, and has been around a heck of a lot longer.
"The "good old days" were good. It's not wrong to miss them and the types of stories that were being told then. On the flip side, anime today isn't all "unambitious" moeblob. The proportions have shifted, but there's still cool and ambitious stuff being made all the time—just look at Concrete Revolutio. Both of these things are valuable on their own terms, and any individual person has just as much a right to cherish one as the other."
Concrete Revolutio is what I'm talking about, though. It's ambitious. It's also made by the director of Full Metal Alchemist so there's an obvious audience for it.

Want to take a guess at how hard the anime press has covered it?

The problem is that the proportions have shifted. The majority is getting table scraps, while the minority gets a ten course meal despite not eating most of it. This is a shrinking industry, and continuing down this path is killing it faster. This needs to be fixed before things can ever get better.

This article shows to me that, while a lot of it is well-meaning of the industry's troubles, it is completely missing the point. No one is saying old anime is better because it is old.

The fact is that anime used to deliver experiences at the level of the MCU on a reliable basis. That was when it was at its all-time sales high in Japan, and internationally. When they stopped making those series in the mid-00s and moved on to Moe, sales slumped, and the industry suffered worldwide. It should be obvious to any objective observer that it was a bad idea, and it is a path that should be abandoned.

It's a problem of priorities. Should the industry keep catering to a shrinking base with overpriced merchandise, or aim for the level of the MCU that anime used to be at? Should it continue to whither, or reach for the stars again? Both are risks, but one is a proven wash.

They have to make a decision eventually, because things cannot keep going the way they are. Not if they want their industry to live to see the future.

Whatever happens, let's hope they choose right.

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