The following is a summation of 20 or so years of anime fandom, past and possibly the future. Anime has gone through rough times these past few years, but news of things like Makoto Shinkai’s latest film, Your Name, dominating the box office worldwide gives me hope. Not only are things looking up for creators (as long as your not a young animator) but fandom seems to be healthier than ever. Is it sustainable? Who knows, everyone seems to thing the entire industry is in a bubble yet again, but one thing is definitely making me happy – classic anime is finally getting some love.
I’ve been an anime fan for nearly all my life, granted, it wasn’t for several years that I knew of the term “anime” and recognized it as a wholly separate entity from normal old cartoons that cluttered up many a Saturday morning. Like most kids of my generation, I used to watch stuff like Robotech and Voltron, but it was not until I was visiting a friend’s house in third grade where I fell in love with it. This kid I was hanging around with had a nerdy father that had rented Akira, and even though we were unable to watch the entire film (not appropriate for our age back then) it became a new thing to look for anytime we had a few extra bucks laying around. This became my favorite time to be an anime fan, because every trip to the video store was like a treasure hunt – even the worst amine that we rented (Final Fantasy Legend of the Crystals comes to mind) was an almost alien experience and very exciting. We were like film connoisseurs looking for obscure films at a Blockbuster Video, part of a secret club that not many knew about.
While in college, it was easy to spot a generational shift in anime fandom. Gone were the days of pirated unlicensed VHS copies of anime lugged to club meetings in milk crates – everything was starting to be readily available 24/7 on the internet, and even for a time, Cable Television. A lot of the younger fans that were attending had zero interest in “classic anime” or trying anything that wasn’t already popular. The term “classic” is extremely vague and carries the baggage of a general correlation to the age of the subject. To some, it could even be a sort of a pejorative term as many regard older media as inferior and “not cool”. I remember several anime club meetings where certain members would whine about having to sit through anything “old”. This disregard for the history of the medium that we all love highlighted a division between fans, and one that I feel nearly led to the demise of the medium.
This “Toonami Generation” led directly into the “fad generation” of anime fans, this may be an unpopular opinion, but this was a generation of fans that did not like anime as much as the anime culture that started to appear in the mid 2000’s. I stopped going to anime conventions in around 2006 because the viewing rooms were empty and playing ancient ADV releases from five years prior that many had long since bought on DVD and sold back to their local video store. Panels were empty, and the merch was starting to no longer contain any novelty items from Japan, it was all retail stores desperately trying to unload boxed sets of stuff that nobody was going to buy. Want volume 1 of Bleach on DVD? “Step Right up!” Want An animation cel from Macross Do You Remember Love? “what’s a Macross?” People were there to hang out, which is cool, but the reason for the con itself seemed to be a total afterthought.
So what happened?
In 2000 digital animation became the norm, and traditional animal cels went the way of the dodo. Suddenly, anime hit somewhat of a “fad” and became a mainstream medium thanks to high DVD sales of these flashy new cheap digital shows. Best Buy suddenly had an anime section, Hollywood actors were doing voice over work, and popular TV shows had anime parodies or actual continuations like Supernatural and Marvel comic properties. Hell, I think there was even a Twilight Manga at some point. At least 10 TV channels (some completely gone at this point, or restructured) had entire blocks devoted to anime, something that I assume was more-or-less bought by DVD companies to promote back-catalog items, but also because everyone wanted their own Adult Swim.
Just like when anything gets popular, a counter faction sprang up to often deride anything that had a tinge of being made in Japan. Some of these were bitter former fans, ones that saw what they enjoyed being taken over by so-called “weaboos” a pejorative term for anime fans that sprang up a decade ago. Others were people that saw this con-culture of the Fad Generation, found it annoying, and decided to hate on it as a whole. I liken this to what happened to professional wrestling fandom about the time that UFC and other mixed martial arts groups got popular at around the same time.
Then the bubble burst. Many fans were ignorant of the issues plaguing the Japanese industry, but things weren’t good. Sales were going down, merchandising was flat and the once lucrative option to sell to the west was drying up due to tastes changing and popularity dying. Stores were stuck with mountains of stuff nobody wanted, companies started to close, and anime looked to be on it’s deathbed.
I think the biggest thing that signaled this crisis was the collapse of ADV in 2009. At their peak they were a great company, having the rights to some of anime’s biggest shows like Neon genesis Evangelion. after seeming basically untouchable, they decided to have a TV network, a magazine, a manga line, etc until they were hemorrhaging money. They did this so they could say arrogant press-lines like “we’re the biggest animation company besides Disney”. They thought they were a huge media conglomerate instead of what they really were: a successful anime dub-house.
At the last few A-Kons I went to (anime con in Texas) most companies would show off maybe 2 new licenses, then you would walk by ADV’s table and they would have 20 new acquisitions, mostly containing shows of questionable subject matter, and no fan base whatsoever, and shows that utterly flopped in Japan. granted, they got these deals for pennies on the dollar, but it costs money to dub and produce anime….money they didn’t have. They got funding by some corporation in Japan, that started a hostile takeover, and it crashed them…
Thankfully, this blog post isn’t the history of anime’s demise, but the above is a nice way to illustrate what the anime market looks like now and why the title is “The Return of Classic Anime?”. I used to have to go to ridiculous lengths to try to find some obscure anime and manga that I like, still keeping that treasure hunting mindset that was solidified in my youth. I have bootlegs that I either created or purchased of shows that I assumed would never have a chance of coming out over here, things Like Leiji Matsumoto’s Starzinger and Danguard Ace, manga for decades old Gundam side-stories and other stuff that was annoying to acquire.
I recall years of articles in magazines and on sites like Anime News Network where people would ask things like “Why hasn’t X been licensed yet?” to be met with a reply of something like “it’s old and there is no market for it”. It can be argued that any recent success the anime market has had could be chalked up to yet another bubble that is due to burst, but one thing is evident – there IS a market for that older stuff. Anime now has older fans that want stuff akin to the way Criterion sells old films – I’ll call it the Premium Market.
Fans in this market are willing to pay a lot more and are excited about old stuff or long dead licenses. They actually still buy physical media, and aren’t just looking to get a ton of stuff for cheap. These are the fans that anime companies have needed for a while, and they are the ones driving sales for things like the hardback editions of Gundam: The Origin from Vertical publishing, or just about anything from Discotek Media. These are basically the vinyl collectors that are breathing life back into the music industry for the anime industry, a fanbase that was pushed away as a weird novelty before finally getting their due.
I started really thinking about this while listening to a recent podcast from Anime News Network in which they interviewed somebody about anime expo 2016, and it seemed like these fans were the talk of the town. Take this recent Publisher’s weekly article discussing the convention in which this new trend was discussed:
At the Kodansha Comics panel on Saturday, Ben Applegate, director of publishing for Kodansha Comics, cheered the ongoing rebound in manga print sales. “You’re probably seeing all the industry people here smiling, so you know that the manga industry is doing really well,” he said. “This resurgence of manga is allowing us to take chances on different series we wouldn’t usually in the past.”
The exact topic being discussed was a release of the 1970’s Queen Emeraldas Manga, and the astonishing way that it SOLD OUT pre-order-wise at this very convention. without skipping a beat, a recent manga publisher called Seven Seas recently announced that they were publishing a Captain Harlock manga in the west, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes is currently being released in novel form, and soon in anime form. had you mentioned any of this to me a decade ago, I would have laughed.
Anime companies, in the United States at least, are finally starting to see that there are ways to sell older stuff, and simply making it a cheap bargain bin item is a good way NOT to sell something. Making deluxe sets with collectors and connoisseurs in mind has breathed life back into a once though of as dead market, and has made classic anime something not to be reviled, but something honored.