Preface: Another semester has passed, and once again I’ve had the pleasure of writing a paper on a topic I genuine enjoy, anime, there’s no doubt about that. Incidentally, this is for a course instructed by the same professor that had me publishing my last paper as well. To sport the spirit of the season, I’d just like to say I’m thankful for this; something I’ve realized from the week of finals that have just passed for me is that although both are painstaking, I’d much rather prefer writing a final paper than taking a final exam. Yes, it’s easier in a lot of ways but more importantly it’s just feels fucking right. With a creation that you may have even completely bullshitted, there’s still such a greater happenstance that you can acknowledge it as a result of time and effort. I near perfectly confident when I say I will never take an exam that will make me feel proud in my own capability, especially if I spent the prior night cramming for material that will never apply in my actual passions. But I digress, without further adieu, here is an essay you may or may not take interest in.
Distinctive Optimism before Aspersions: The Mixed Media of Anime and Accepting the Good, the Bad, the Cute, and the Ugly
In 1963 on New Year’s Day, Tetsuwan Atom premiered on Japanese television network Fuji TV, becoming the first popular Japanese television series that embodied the aesthetic now known globally as anime as well as marking the birth of a new glorified mixed media franchise alongside the birth of a new year. Before its animated conception, Tetsuwan Atom, which would go on to become known overseas as Astro Boy, had long since been an accessible narrative in comic form. Paired with its television broadcast debut was Astro Boy’s promotional representation for chocolate manufacturing company, Meiji Seika; these two modes of disclosure rocketed the franchise into success, without the need for the eponymous character’s signature jet-powered legs. Then, as if following marketing suit, the 1979 fellow robot-themed TV anime series Kidō Senshi Gandamu, or, Mobile Suit Gundam, counteracted its initial commercial failure with immersive extensions of fan-interaction that went beyond simple viewership of the animated series. Amateur involvement consisting of encyclopedias and timelines expanding the fictional world of the Gundam series paved the series’ way towards a prosperous history and proved to be increasingly invaluable in consideration to the dozens of subsequent titles that would be added into the multiverse of the franchise. Even though Tetsuwan Atom and Mobile Suit Gundam were works similarly influenced by conventional science fiction, they would eventually be defined by their own respective, stylistic approaches, the latter being greatly contributive to the Japanese sub-genre known as mecha. Correspondingly, the upsurge of both manga-adapted and original TV anime series served as a precursor to the creation of more animanga specific standardized methods and tropes. The media has been acknowledged as more than just a lowbrow, popular culture, but rather an art-form that provides a way for its viewership to negotiate alternative identities by engaging with a wide range of colorful and edifying characters, dynamic plots, and storyboards; thereby establishing profound connections between text and individual. With Astro Boy, Tezuka sought to have the success of his series chance upon money from licensing fees for character goods and international sales. As a result, he opted for the tactic of “limited animation,” in which he radically skewed on the number of frames that had to be drawn, using few mouth movements, re-using kinetic scenes, and emphasizing still shots of dramatic poses rather than detailed action. In spite of this, Astro Boy’s grand success solidified the notion that the actual animated quality of anime was secondary to the publicity of appealing characters. This marketing stratagem was another aspect that the anime industry rigorously retained from the world’s primogenial successful TV anime series. Anime has always had alongside its rich history of a Japanese-disseminated style characterized by colorful graphics, vibrant characters and fantastic themes, the cross-purpose of commodification by means of what Marc Steinburg calls in his Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan “media mix.” To elaborate on the concept that is already quite overt from the publication’s title, the media mix essentially comprises anime’s astoundingly broad merchandising of images and its franchising across media and commodities. In conjunction to what literary critic Azuma Hiroki details as the deconstructive movement of “the animalization of otaku culture,” media mix denotes a disparity between cultural expression of anime as an art form and its economic self-sufficiency, an ongoing discrepancy that has become exceedingly critical in the industry’s current post-modern age. Many have poised this phenomenon as increasingly detrimental, associating the virtual satiation of consumer culture enacted by the modern day otaku with societal stigmas such as hikikomori and soushoku-kei, otherwise known as “acute social withdrawal” and “herbivore men” respectively. But in truth, these associations are an inevitable result of the media branching out to new areas of form, culture and expression. Media mix is an inherent trait of anime, but its development is not something that has been inhibited by this factor of commodification, but rather something that has self-consciously grown from it.
In the mid-1990s, in response to the steady decline of manga sales in the face of competition from newer entertainment media such as video games and DVDs, publishers targeted oversea audiences as a new marketing frontier. One crucial aspect of promotion was the pitch of visual formats such as anime and interactive collecting card games prior to the actual publication of manga. This was a marketing scheme that proved tremendously lucrative, giving rise to the cultural hits in the United States such as Dragon Ball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Pokémon that ushered in effective manga hype. Parenthetically, the 1990s also saw a rapid decline in the importance of fiction and narrative within otaku culture. Azuma associations this stagnation with otaku activities being behavioral responses that are susceptible to sophisticated techniques of statistical control. Primarily, he refers to the Japanese noun moe and verb moeru, which translate to “affect” and “to arouse,” respectively. In his elaboration, the response to the ambiguous quality of moe, is directly associated with the transition from the supremacy of narrative to the supremacy of characters. As with many literary critics, Azuma traces the moe craze to the landmark TV original anime series Shin Seiki Evangelion and its disciplinary reflection of the infamous Aum subway attacks in Japan. In the 1980s, otaku obsession with the science fiction of earlier series such as the aforementioned Gundam was subverted when the Aum’s subway attack thoroughly shattered the post-apocalyptic otaku dream of creating a new world in which they would become heroes, or allies of justice. In its narrative, Evangelion made it clear that no one could save the world, and instead raised the issues of the individual “at least being able to save himself.” The horrifically daunting climax of Evangelion was penultimate to the final episode, which consisted of an alternative universe wherein the iconic character Rei Ayanami is seen running to school with a piece of bread in her mouth. In response, otaku essentially replaced their crushed world of science fiction, which represented “an alternative to the actual future,” with the elicited reaction of moe. As Kaichiro Morikawa, a scholar of Japanese pop culture, states, “In the broadest terms, moe has replaced ‘future.’” (Okada) In lieu of the era of the “grand narrative” that defined the pre-1995 period for anime, an era wherein the majority of the otaku community draws from the “grand database” to engaged in its consummation has all but taken over. The emergence of visual novels at this time gives an account of a modern medium being added into the media mix of anime and also serves as a paradigm for the division between narrative and character consumption, wherein these visual novels are known notably for their enthralling and sensitive narratives but concurrently encompass an interactive interface that allows for functions such as screen-capturing and scenario-pathing. The co-founder of 1998 software company Key, Jun Maeda, has scripted himself the source material for many of anime’s most renowned romance titles, such as Kanon, Air, and Clannad, all of which were originally visual novels with the innovative features of branching plot lines and multiple love interests all tailored to the player’s individual preference. Perhaps the most crucial point to be divulged here is that while this double structure divides consumer behavior into two distinct types, that is not to say that there are two distinct types of consumers. As with the occurrence of Gundam, fan interaction has long since immersed itself into the development of anime, not only thinning the line between narrative and character iconography but also between producers and consumers. Visual novels, light novels, and most obviously, dōjinshi, or, self-published works, all have origins of anime consumers utilizing different, more accessible mediums to engage in a play of interactivity and have subsequently been integrated into the media mix of the machine of commodification known is anime. While many may argue that all industries exist for the purpose of commercialization, a considerable amount of this perception is very well due to the profound developments in global capitalism supported by the transformations of Japanese media culture. To date, Japanese animation makes ups sixty percent of the world’s broadcast TV cartoons, and sixty percent of anime itself is based upon popular characters. In retrospection to this majority that essentially functions as the industry’s life support system, many contemporary creators in the field acknowledge somewhat of a love-hate relationship, perhaps the most recent grand example being the original TV anime series Mahō Shōjo Madoka Magika, directed by Akiyuki Shinbo and written by Gen Urobuchi. In its conception, the series is one conscious of the moe sub-genre’s current grasp on the anime industry, in which its central theme is the intentional “mash-up of cuteness and darkness.” (Shinbo) Though this innovation of a paradigm shift is hardly the entire rationale for the booming success of the anime series itself, that subsequently spawned a proliferation of spin-off manga series, novelizations, video games, film series, dedicated magazines, figurine lines, and other collectibles, an extensive and expansive merchandising of images so very familiar with breakthrough series. In the words of Madoka producer Atsuhiro Iwakami, at the core of Madoka’s production as an original story was simply “coming up with a high-quality piece of entertainment” for “the general anime fan.” (Iwakami) While skeptics would contend that such a series could only exist in the yesteryears of anime, Mahō Shōjo Madoka Magika is a series that flaunts the dedication of its producers to present something of rich narrative all the while acknowledging the current eminence of series based upon database characters. In the same vein as Evangelion before it, Madoka gives way to an over-arching grand narrative, a marketable cast of bewitching characters, and even a realm of small narratives as represented by the succeeding movie series based in alternative universes. On the contrary to the outright embracement of moe is the rise to stardom of anime film director Makoto Shinkai, who in 2001, ambitiously quit his job as a game developer to independently work on his first original video animation, Hoshi no Koe, or Voices of a Distant Star. Shinkai, for all intents and purposes, is a wild card in the anime industry; his works famous for imbuing an atmosphere science fiction and futuristic feel to elicit simple themes and complex emotions are a far cry from the industry standard of today. Furthermore, the infamous ambiguous endings of his works are a stark contrast to the preference of modern day otaku who satiate in the caricature of popular icons, nor does his own pioneered animation studio push for the intense commodification of its productions. Despite his aloofness to this database animalization, Makoto Shinkai nonetheless stands as a renowned figure that transitioned in the anime industry from consumer to producer. His status is one constantly compared to one the industry’s great legends, Hayao Miyazaki; his works receive rave reviews and are considered masterpieces in their craft; and his accomplishments stand testament to the fact that anime consumers and producers can be true connoisseurs of a cultural and artistic form.
Perhaps the most spiritually-successive of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, even more so than the similarly-themed Gundam series, are the commercial powerhouses known as shōnen series. For as long as most consumers can remember, the likes of such shōnen series as Naruto, Hunter x Hunter, and One Piece have dominated yearly manga sales. In 2012, One Piece was the top-selling manga series with an estimated twenty-three million copies sold, a figure fifteen-million more than the second top-selling manga series, though it is worth nothing that the four series following One Piece were all also shōnen series themselves and that similar statistics represent TV anime rankings. Shōnen series in the anime and manga industry represent quite possibly the most powerful and thrilling narratives, so much so hold records as being the longest published series, but they have also inherited from Astro Boy the ease of commodification. Globally, stylish shōnen protagonists are colossal forces of iconic merchandising. The year 2013 saw the emergence of a new shōnen series quite literally giving long-time champion One Piece a run for its money. Cult series, Shingeki no Kyojin saw an estimated fifteen million copies sold at the end of the fiscal year, three million short of One Piece’s eighteen million. Assuredly, Shingeki no Kyojin’s spontaneous success is not simply a case of its anime adaptation thrusting it into the public eye, though it is worth nothing that manga sales were majorly influenced by the production of its anime counterpart. What lies true for shōnen series in particular is that in addition to what Azuma and Steinburg jointly refer to as a database of characters from which producers can easily commercialize and consumers can easily draw towards is a database of motifs and themes. Despite being traditionally recognized as literary devices implicative of the narrative, themes and motifs have for some time been a defining feature for shōnen series that substitutes the necessity for depth within the grand narrative. Whether it be ninjas in the world of Naruto, wizards in the world of Fairy Tail, chefs in the world of Toriko, or anything else, the thematic has made it all the more easier to access a franchise without core knowledge of its narrative and perhaps now, even its characters. Notably, within the world of Shingeki no Kyojin, the characters are members of the military’s Recon Corps who defend humanity from the colossal threat known as titans. While franchising of the series’ characters has proved to be its own huge commercial success, fan appreciation has taken it a step further by lauding the series simply over its grand design. For example, rather than the traditional cosplay of specific characters from the anime series, consumers of Shingeki no Kyojin will simply don the uniform of the Recon Corps and essentially become a character of the series. Shōnen series are arguably the animanga industry’s oldest and still most important staple, but even it is showing signs of radical growth not only in its narrative structure but also in its thematic construction and marketability. Regardless, critical reception of new series such as Shingeki no Kyojin have been marvelous on all levels; besides being a global success, the series was also nominated for the prestigious Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize as well as winning many others. When asked about the resounding success of Shingeki no Kyojin, veteran animation studio president Masahiko Minami had to say, “as long as the manga continues and has a good story, the show will follow in suit.” (Minami) As it holds, the traditional feature of the grand narrative is still the framework that allocates for a series success. What the animanga industry is seeing today is an advancing growth that can just as easily be accepted and welcomed in upholding the art form’s cultural identity as it can be denied and labelled as detrimental.
With Astro Boy, anime drew its origins from Western influences; but in a sense, it has created its own melting pot. Over time, the distinctive climate of the otaku world has shifted its focus from an idealistic science fiction narrative to an erotic gratification from virtual database moe characters. Up until the 1980s, people who watched any form of anime, whether it be the accomplished award-winning works Spirited Away and Akira by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo respectively or the week-by-week showings of Doraemon and Poketto Monsuta. In the current age, Japanese animation is so accomplished transmedially and transnationally that any individual can safely watch and enjoy anime without being labelled as otaku. Otaku have had such a dynamic history that where it stands today is an entirely different status from its origin as well as what many people are still familiar with. Some argue against the pollution of this development, wherein the ushering of new forms of erochikku games and moe anime are overtly more repugnant modes. Today, anime stands at the forefront of this media mix of itself, manga, video games, visual novels, light novels, figures, and more. Hardly is it ever the case that the production of any of these forms serves the purpose of boosting its anime counterpart’s sales, though the reverse is extremely so. As reference, the late 2011 anime re-adaptation of shōnen series Hunter x Hunter saw the manga gaining a twenty percent boost in sales from the 2012 year to the 2013 year despite being in a still with-lasting one year hiatus. In a joint interview with similarly prominent figures Kaichiro Morikawa and Takashi Murakami, anime producer, author and lecturer Toshio Okada condensed his response to the sensation of the ever-changing media mix of anime with a denotation of optimism for the industry. Okada, considered the foremost authority on otaku culture and appropriately crowned the “OtaKing” by his peers, gives credence to the quality-seeking aspect of otaku rather than the pleasure seeking aspect. According to him, “what’s survived in otaku culture hasn’t become unacceptable. It’s survived the competition because its quality has been recognized. Once something like a bishōjo game achieves a certain level of quality, you buy it even if you don’t actually like bishōjo games. Otaku are tough customers who demand high standards.” (Okada) And sure enough, the aforementioned examples each in their own way contribute as backing to the claim from this “king.” Whether it be Makoto Shinkai’s animated feature films; the hybridity of narrative and database interactivity in Jun Maeda’s visual novels; the ever-lasting dominance of Eiichiro Oda’s shōnen manga series One Piece in the international market; Gen Urobuchi’s self-conscious Mahō Shōjo Madoka Magika; or even Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion that allegedly spawned moe-ism to begin with; these works that may or may not implement the media mix scheme that originated with Osamu Tezuka’s fundamental Astro Boy are reflective of a high level of standard within both consumers and producers of the anime industry that embraces innovation while continuously ensuring the retention of anime first and foremost as a mode of artistic expression, creative thinking and enriched cultural identity.
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