Thursday, March 2, 2023

In the Places You Least Expect

It's rare that one wakes up in the morning and the world is suddenly different. Most of the time it's a slow but steady change that leads everything around you to eventually becoming uncanny, a crude mockery of what you once thought of as normal. Sometimes, they just replace the lamppost lights with better bulbs, but that isn't as common these days as it once was.

Regardless, things don't stay the same forever.

As you are no doubt well aware, there is a sea change going on in the world of art and entertainment. NewPub being one of the examples of such a shift, but there are many others as well. We've gone over a few recently, but a lot of those are much more obvious. Today we're going to talk about anime, a subject we haven't really gone over much recently. Mostly because, well, there isn't much to say. I know I can repeat myself, but I don't go out of my way to.

What I've been watching in regards to anime isn't exactly what the majority is watching, outside of adaptions of manga I already read like My Hero Academia and whatnot. There is not much to repeat there. You already know what that is and if you enjoy it.

The industry has mostly been going the course, though with diminishing returns for anyone who has been watching for any length of time. It can get quite stale at times, and for good reason. For awhile the industry has needed a hot dose of adrenaline, and there is some to be seen, though not in the places you might expect. One of the weird shifts has been the turn the anime industry has made towards streaming services due to the overcrowded nature of their industry. But what they are doing with streaming is more interesting than what they are doing with TV, or what the west is doing with either of them. It is getting to the point where the more original and ambitious projects are being moved off of TV and into the online world instead. This is beginning to change the game, at least a little.

While manga is currently a booming industry with a lot of original projects being put out there, anime is a bit more stagnant. You can pretty much predict how everything that comes out each season will look and even preform and, outside of the obvious studios (BONES, David Productions, MAPPA, Trigger, etc.) it's more or less a glut of the same stuff recycled over and over again. You know what you're going to get every single time. That isn't the problem, though: it isn't about a lack of new ideas, but about execution.

It's fairly predictable how most things will play out. They just add colored hair, sometimes overdesign the clothes (usually to mask the fact that all the faces are interchangeable), and use the same angles and poses as everyone else. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of ambition.

Well, at least not in the big leagues. A few years ago, an independent student group created their own 18 minute animated project completely on their own (with some crowdfunding help!) and put it up for free on YouTube. this was a completely original project done with a small team. This would have been unheard of even a decade ago.

So what did they make? They created Kūchū Gunkan Atlantis a fresh spin on classic Gainax, Ghibi, and 1960s era anime ideas, but with that spirit of adventure you don't really see anymore in the mainstream. Especially not in film form.

You can see the full short anime here:

This is the sort of project that bodes well for any independent scene that might pop up over there, but even in the mainstream, companies appear to be using the untested grounds of streaming to try things a bit outside the box. Nothing quite at this level in terms of overall ambition, but plenty of things that could not be made otherwise.

You might have heard a lot about the Cyberpunk: Edgerunners anime last year. But if you didn't see it then you might not know that it didn't actually air on TV. It was an ONA (Original Net Animation) not unlike the classic era OVAs (Original Video Animation) from back in the day. That is why it had more freedom in its pacing and content than you would see from a TV series, and was allowed to be what it was. In a sense, it is a return to a style lost when the industry bubble popped at the end of the 1980s and the steam ran out by the '00s.

Other similar projects include the Bastard! manga getting a new adaption (which, again, received an OVA back in the day) as its content would otherwise be impossible to air on TV. It almost makes one wonder why Berserk has not received the same treatment. This "Heavy Metal Fantasy" was more or less designed to embody all those edgy 1980s tropes you know but with a heavy dose of comedy (and not exactly the sort of comedy anime usually goes for) to the proceedings. You'd never know this originally ran in Weekly Shonen Jump back in the day since it is so juvenile, but only in a way adults can understand. The magazine has changed much over the decades, just like the industry has since its glory days.

One project that highlights this perfectly, is the ONA adaption of the Spriggan manga (which itself is finally getting a proper release overseas) done by David Productions, the folks behind the Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and JoJo's Bizarre Adventures anime series, themselves. Though it had a movie made back in the 1990s (helmed by no less than Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame himself), it was an adaption of one arc in the manga and also cut things out to fit the mood the director wanted. The anime aims to be more faithful to the manga while retaining the flair it is known for, the reason it was so popular back in the day.

For those unaware, Spriggan is a globetrotting adventure starring our main protagonist super agent Yu Ominae who wears an enhanced suit of body armor as he searches for ancient alien artifacts that blur the line between science and supernatural. These artifacts are a problem because can be used to destroy the world, because humanity is just not ready for them. It is his job as a super agent to keep them out of villains' hands, whether they be monsters, spirits, science experiments, super soldiers, or artifact wielders themselves. It's more or less an episodic adventure series.

Each ONA episode is structed like an OVA episode of old--a 45 minute adaption of one arc from the manga done at a surprisingly brisk pace with all the flair David Productions is known for. And because it is episodic (something that has been turned into a huge no-no these days), it remains an engaging watch one can handle at their own pace, one episode at a time. I am still hoping for a second season. Here's hoping it did well enough.

Here is one random, out of context scene to highlight what makes Spriggan so good. (Warning! Heavy violence and blood incoming)

This is the sort of hot blooded adventure and strange action you won't see from anime much these days, especially on TV or the cinema. Military action, supernatural, high tech, and enough bizarre characters and turns to shake a stick at. You have to find it here in steaming: online in a brand new and experimental format hinged to the cloud of streaming services. So it's not that much different than how Japan already handles its TV productions.

Is this setup ideal? Probably not, especially when physical releases are very slow coming (I don't think ANY Netflix exclusive produced series have had physical releases yet), but it does give a new way of producing them in the first place. That is definitely more appreciated in an age where everything blurs together in the tired TV landscape that has long since dried out.

The uncomfortable truth remains that the OVA era did allow more creative opportunities and venues for creators to approach their projects in an age when the industry, and the country's economy, were booming. But that was over three decades ago. Since then it has been about streamlining everything for television guidelines. The ONA venue might give some of that freedom back, especially as anime only increases in popularity overseas as the western industry flails.

Whatever the case, it is more freeing than where we are even a couple of years ago. Having everything locked to the same bland family friendly/pseudo edgy content allowed on television tended to make things awkward. More venues can only help, at this point.

I can't know exactly where the future for the industry lies, but when highly anticipated projects like Naoki Urasawa's Pluto (based on Osamu Tezuka's classic Astro Boy story) end up becoming Netflix exclusives with seemingly hour long episodes, you have to wonder how long things will stay as they currently are. The old ways are fading fast. We're going to have to get used to it.

Is this a good or bad thing? That will depend on what we choose to preserve, and what we choose to discard. Eventually we're going to have to choose the right path to travel. It would be better if the choice were not made for us.

At the very least, it gives a good excuse for classic manga to FINALLY get the western releases they always deserved, such as the above-mentioned Spriggan. I know I've been waiting for this one for a long time now.

Find it Here!

Results like this can only be described as a good thing for everyone involved. The wider availability of medium classics are always a net-gain, even if too many have been trained to only buy the newest release.

The change in distribution has also helped manga, as well. One can read every chapter of the earlier mentioned My Hero Academia on the official Viz site as it comes out, and yet each physical volume is still a #1 bestseller regardless of the content in it being easily accessible.. That is the sign of an industry currently booming.

As for the West, well, still nothing on that front. We have not learned any lessons from our neighbor's successes or our own failures. Nothing much has changed at all. Even in the indie space, it's all the same. Comics aside, animation is stale.

There have been no attempts to revisit something actually missing from the landscape like Don Bluth's style or unique adaptions like The Last Unicorn, it's all still post '90s subversive corporate deconstructionist edgelord stuff, exactly like that same mainstream stuff you see everywhere that no one is buying anymore. If anyone knows anything being offered outside of this, I'd like to see it. I'm not convinced we're anywhere near catching up with the East in this sort of thing, though. We're too deep in divisive styles that chased audiences away in the first place.

We are in an age where everything is more available than it ever has been, so being in a situation where we are still losing things can be disheartening. The above independent anime, for instance, is the only recent production that doesn't contain CG mecha. Why? Because apparently no one in the industry thought to pass down the techniques to do it. This means, outside of going independent, you literally cannot find something that was readily available as little as fifteen years ago--something of objectively superior quality than what is being made now.

Theirs is not the only industry with that problem.

Ask yourself what happened to third person omniscient narrators in books, for instance. No one teaches it today because "audiences do not want it" and yet due to that attitude, audiences are then never exposed to it. So if no one teaches this form, how does it get passed down? How does anything change? It doesn't. It just dies out. Everyone misses out. 

This is less common than the much more hated second person present tense form, of all things, is pushed by OldPub regardless of its lack of success. Should this lost art of third person omniscient be revived it will, once again, be up to independents to spearhead it. OldPub is too close to death to bother, busy censoring Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl while their lackey authors completely avoid discussing the topic. Perhaps they'll write more forewords to Fahrenheit 451 about their expertise in censorship. We could all use a good laugh in these trying times.

The point is that we are still losing things in an age where preservation is easier than ever before. We still have a ways to go before this ship gets steered away from the iceberg.

And we will also have to use another industry as an example to do it.

Teaser for the Pluto anime adaption.

But things change all the time, as we've seen above. As long as we're still kicking and biting, we'll always be creating. Art always remains, regardless of the times and regardless of the people in charge of them. You can't ever stop it.

Though we focused mainly on an example from one industry in another part of the world, it will soon become a reality in all of them everywhere. We have been stuck for the past 25+ years circling the drain in a dying landscape that is no longer relevant to anyone in it. A new one will arise in its place. What that will be remains to be seen, and it will have to be made by us. We certainly can't trust relics like OldPub to fix what they broke.

There is no reason to not anticipate the coming shift, however. There will always been eternal truths and cravings we as human beings will want more than the minimum expectations. Adventure, wonder, hope, and love, will never cease to be goals for us. It will never truly depart from our art, either. We will never change to the point that we never need it.

Tomorrow is coming regardless, however. Here's hoping we are paying attention to the changes ahead of us.

It is only by taking advantage of what is coming that we can keep this party going. And make no mistake: it's a party. Escapism is invaluable, a peak into the joy we will all hopefully come into someday. As Chesterton said, the only people who hate escapism are jailers. So let's open that cage wide.

We've got many more of them to open!

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