Why Western Culture is Beginning to Embrace Anime
It is the conversation every anime fan dreads. You watch a series like One Piece or Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 and you’re convinced a friend or family member would love it if they just gave it a chance. You tell them the premise. They’re intrigued. Then you explain it’s an anime. Their eyes glaze over and their face sinks into a deadpan glare as you’ve, yet again, tried to trap them into watching another one of your nerdy Japanese kids shows (or worse they have visions of busty young women being held captive by tentacled monsters).
This response is particularly baffling considering that the draw cards on both the big and small screens these days are intellectual properties that are (or at least were) aimed at children. People refuse to see Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll or Isao Takahata’s heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies because anime is for kids, but they will gladly line up for hours to be the first to watch the latest Star Wars, Harry Potter or Marvel movies.
But fortunately there is a whiff of change in the air. A growing number of people are realising that anime is not a genre like western animation, but rather an artistic format to tell an array of different stories. Much like video games are slowly breaking down the stigma of being a children’s medium, anime has opened up over the last two decades. The 80s and 90s saw moderate success bringing anime to the west, but it has never been more popular than it has today (especially with adults). So, why are we now seeing this anime renaissance?
Crunchyroll: A Streaming Godsend
Going back a decade or so, the key killer of any potential anime fan’s enthusiasm was access. Anime was considered a very niche market (most never officially made it outside of Japan and could only be found on bootleg versions with fan subtitles). This meant purchasing anime quickly burnt a hole in your wallet. Even today, to buy a volume of One Piece, which contains only 15 episodes, can cost you around 50 bucks; and for a series currently sitting just shy of 800 episodes… It all adds up.
But the joys of the digital age have brought us affordable anime in the form of Crunchyroll: a streaming service founded in 2006; since then, it has amassed over 20 million subscribers and shows no sign of slowing down. The streaming service is available for free, which means people who cannot afford streaming services can easily access the content; however to watch in HD (and ad free) there is a $6.95 monthly subscription fee. If you choose an annual plan, it is only $59.95.
Let’s compare the affordability of today’s technologies to that of the early 2000s. To do this, we are going to use One Piece: The most popular show on Crunchyroll, and a popular title for both eras. At the time of writing this article, One Piece had just aired its 792nd episode. Every episode runs for 23 minutes, which means that to get through the entire series so far, you would need to set aside 18,285 minutes (about 304 hours). It would take just over 12 ½ days to watch the entire series in a marathon. Assuming that you will also need to eat, sleep, go to school and/or work, let’s say you have enough time to watch two episodes a day. It would take 13 months to be up to the current episode. Now, disregarding the new content that came out over that thirteen month period, watching up to the current episode in full HD would cost you a grand total of $90.35. If you compare purchasing the 15 episode DVDs, which retail for $46.98, then to watch the same amount of episodes you would need to purchase 52 volumes (some of which aren’t available yet), which would come to a grand total of $2,442.95 (Interesting fact: You would need to have a paid Crunchyroll subscription for forty-one years to spend the same amount of money as buying One Piece on DVD).
This means that more people can afford anime, but what does it mean for actual consumption? Well, Crunchyroll’s twenty million subscribers watch 1.5 billion minutes a month. This gives them an average of 75 hours a month per subscriber, divided into a daily average of 2 ½ hours of anime a day. The average Netflix user watches approximately 1 ½ hours of television a day. Since Netflix has 98 million subscribers around the world, it is safe to assume that most of these twenty million crunchyrollers have access to Netflix, but are choosing to spend an hour a day more on average watching anime than the predominantly western entertainment on the bigger streaming services.
In the end, Crunchyroll allows you to stream new and beloved anime in full HD for a few dollars a month, which makes it more accessible than it has ever been, and now opens the door for people to dip their toe into the anime pool without mortgaging their house to do so.
The Weird and Wonderful Freedom that Anime Brings
When someone decides to try anime, it can be a little daunting. It’s nothing like western animation, or even western entertainment in general. It comes from a completely different culture.
Maneuvering through the murky quagmire of western entertainment can also be tiresome. All the faceless comic heroes start to blend together and it becomes hard to remember where one YA dystopian series ends and the next begins. You feel like you are going around in circles, stumbling across the same wash, rinse and repeat formula. It might be lazy, but it is guaranteed to make money, right?
In the wake of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opening with an abysmal 15 million on a 175 million dollar budget, western audiences are telling the studios that they have had enough of sequels, remakes, reboots and soulless cash-ins like Baywatch (2017) and Ghostbusters (2016).
This doesn’t mean the Japanese are a society of pious artist who aren’t interested in money. They live in a world of capitalism just like ours; but there is a greater level of respect for the creative process. Despite having written more than 80 volumes of the One Piece manga, Echiiro Oda has even been quoted as saying he would ‘die for One Piece‘. This isane level of dedication is manifested throughout his series. It’s evident that Oda loves the world and characters that he creates; so much so that it seems unlikely he would sign off on a character or story arc that could hurt his intellectual property just because it’s commerically appealing. He is given the freedom to flex his creative muscles. Of course, the irony of all this is that his unique creativity is what makes his work so commercially appealing.
The Japanese production philosophy will (generally) see a story through and let it die with dignity. It might run for 13 episodes like Bananya, or 792 and counting like One Piece, but they will play a scenario through until they think the story is finished; then they let it go. They don’t comprimise the artistic integrity of previous work by hashing out a show well past its expiry date. Japanese showrunners usually stick with their shows until the end. Cowboy Bebop was written and directed by Keiko Nobumoto and Shinichirō Watanabe respectively. They were involved in the production of all 26 episodes. Compare this to an A-list showrunner like J. J. Abrhams. He created ALIAS and yet he is only credited with writing 13 of its 105 episodes; while LOST, arguably his biggest TV success, he only wrote 3 teleplays. Abrhams also left both series well before they reached their final seasons.
Bananya is a perfect example of anime production. The preschool children’s show about the weird and wonderful world of cats that live inside bananas contains only 13 episodes, and though it found huge success (namely amongst westerners in their twenties and thirties), there are so far no plans to make another season. The writers may have only ever intended for one season, and so it removed the fear of being cancelled. They could make the weird and wonderful world rattling around in their head; a level of creative control that Western screenwriters would kill for.
Stories without Western Sensibilities
Anime’s writing freedom doesn’t just extend to commercial risks. It should come as no surprise that Japanese culture is rooted in tradition. There is still a very high importance put on etiquette and respect. It is important to Japanese people that they take in their elders when they can no longer look after themselves; they have pride in their clean cities unlittered by garbage; and you must always slurp your soup to signal your enjoyment.
Western culture, which has immersed itself in the world of social media, has replaced etiquette with ideology. It has reverted to a tribal state, setting up camps in different corners of the internet, preparing to battle people with differing opinions. Last year, we saw a furore in the media about how anybody who didn’t like Ghostbusters (2016) hated women; in recent weeks, Cassie Jaye was in Australia promoting her film The Red Pill, which explores the issues of men’s rights activists. People tried to ban her film, and the media verbally attacked her on national television, simply because they didn’t want to hear what she was saying (it was also exposed that none of these ‘jouralists’ actually bothered to watch the film); and just this week christian groups tried to boycott McDonald’s for having rainbow ‘pride fries’ to their San Francisco stores.
Regardless of political faction, western society has succumb to the dark side of social media and has destroyed all political discourse. We have established a bullying culture where people are coerced into a hive mind mentality. All sides seem to delight in ‘doxing’ people and ruining their lives for not sharing the same sentiments.
It is this ruling by fear that has stifled creativity within Hollywood. Stick to the safer tropes because it is not likely to offend someone. A perfect example of this is American sitcoms. Since the introduction of The Simpsons in the late 80s, there has been a steady stream of sitcoms consisting of an idiotic husband, three children (typically one intelligent female, one popular female and one moronic male) and a wife that is the glue that holds it all together. You can find this tropes, or a slight variants, in shows like Modern Family, Everybody Loves Raymond, Fresh off the Boat, Family Guy and 8 Simple Rules just to name a few. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of setup (and The Simpsons is one of the greatest shows of all time) when it is repeated ad nauseum for the sake of playing it safe, you lose any kind of creativity.
Compare this to The Highschool Life of a Fudanshi, and you notice a very different style of storytelling. For those of you who don’t know, a fudanshi is a male who enjoys reading homoerotic manga. The series is a collection of vingettes that follow the awkward adventures of Ryou Sakaguchi: the titular highschool fudanshi. He is never really treated poorly by society; people are generally more shocked or curious. They are constantly questioning his sexuality and Ryou, despite his fascination, always responds with disgust at the idea of himself engaging in homosexual relationships.
Some westerners have criticized this character reaction as homophobic, but in its defence, people coming to terms with their sexuality can legitimately have this reaction. In addition to this, showing the life of a fudanshi is adding some new perspective to a very small minority within Japanese culture and giving a voice to the underdog, which, after all, is the core value of diversity.
In this respect, Highschool Fudanshi embodies the essence of Eastern philosophy. The series explores the key concepts of being a fudanshi: how they live, and how others around them react, without piling on thinly veiled political lectures. You are given enough information and breathing room to formulate your own opinions. Many people in western audiences crave original stories from voiceless people or groups that have something to say. Unburdened by political correctness or conservative censorship, anime is able to tell these unheard stories with fresh perspectives, rather than stagnating in a string of remakes and reboots.
Live Action Remakes
On the subject of remakes, let’s spend a moment on Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell. While Western cultures were focused on the ‘white washing’ of casting Johansson’s character, something argueably more important was being removed: the Japanese culture itself. The film’s director, Rupert Sanders, even stated that the anime was “too philosophical and too introspective”, and decided to turn this thought-provoking film into a one note action movie; as Hollywood has already done with so much of its own medium. Hollywood films like Blade Runner explored these themes in an introspective and philosophical way, and inspired anime like Ghost in the Shell; but modern western films will dumb down our entertainment, for fear they might not reach the widest market possible. Anime is unafraid to be philosophical; to not reach every single person. Of course, the irony is that in trying to please everybody, you don’t end up impressing no one. While some people might even enjoy Johansson’s remake, nobody is going to declare it as their favourite movie of all time.
But one thing that comes from Hollywood trying their terrible hand at anime adaptations is that it gets the intellectual property back in the Zeitgeist, under the noses of people who have never heard of it before. People who don’t know about Ghost in the Shell might enjoy the remake and find people discussing the original online; so they give it a look. In addition to this, the original anime was added to many major streaming service in the advent of the remake, and now people are tuning in to see what the film is about. Be honest: Have you never read an out of print book or watched an obsure film because you were excited about a Hollywood adaptation?
It can also work in the reverse. The Matrix was heavily inspired by anime, and because of this, it even had its own collection of cannonical shorts by famous anime directors (Ghost in the Shell‘s included). The aptly named Animatrix was used by many fans of the popular film as a gateway into the world of anime, which was escpecially helpful considering these high profile directors had worked on the likes of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Cowboy Bebop, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Ninja Scroll. Films like Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing and the Highlander also tried to adapt their properties into anime with varying levels of success; but regardless of the outcome, when films intended for children above the age of ten start to produce canonical animated adventures, it begins to break down the stigma around anime and makes it more accesible for a grown adult to fall in love with an animation without having to justify it with nostalgia.
The Mixed Blessings of Pokémon, DragonballZ and Sailor Moon
The highest concentration of anime fans are people who were kids during the anime boom of the 90s. The 90s saw an explosion of anime amongst children. Shows like Pokémon, DragonballZ and Sailor Moon were staples of morning television. These anime children of the 90s are now nearing their thirties, and as our culture and media have become obsessed with marketing childhood nostalgia, many of them are returning to anime for nostalgia’s sake.
This a double edged sword.
The exposure anime recieved in the 90s was a critical to its success today, but it is also what holds back the artform. When Pokémon becomes synonymous with anime, it reinforces the western notion that animation is a children’s medium. Like many children’s television programs, Pokémon‘s key goal is marketing and merchandise (I did warn you the Japanese can be commercial too). It is produced on a showstring budget and the creators and viewers are more concerned with the merchandise than the story and content itself. Only last year, people all over the world were endangering their lives and dessecrating graves to collect the digital creatures in Pokémon Go! Nobody cared about the characters, the world or the artistry. This only fuelled the notion that anime was solely about commericalism and marketing to impressionable children.
It is important to think of anime as a artistic style, like film or novels; it is just a different way of telling a story. While some films can be targeted at children and be more about the marketing, others may be targeted at adults and may contain rich and complex themes. The same goes for anime; and while it’s important that anime was given that exposure during the 90s, younger people within western culture are open to the idea that anime is so much more than Pikkachu and Pokéballs. You wouldn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and assume that all books are poorly written Twilight fan fiction, would you?
Oscars, Spirited Away and the Rise of Studio Ghibli
We cannot finish without mentioning the anime titan that is Studio Ghibli. Studio Ghibli was founded by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in 1985. They released their first film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was actually created prior to the studio’s formation), and ever since they have been growing their fan base. While the anime boom of the 90s was great for the medium, things really blew up in the early 2000s when Studio Ghibli received the Oscar for Best Animated feature for the Miyazaki masterpiece: Spirited Away. The first anime to win an Oscar, Spirited Away was a game changer. It broke down the idea that anime is all cheaply produced garbage made to sell toys. There was serious artistry involved; and regardless of the intended audience, when a film wins an Oscar, western audiences and particularly those in Hollywood take note. Spirited Away spread through the film world like wildfire, filtering down into cinemas everywhere in what was quite possibly one of the widest anime releases the world has ever seen (although this may have been surpassed by Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, which has gatehred quite a bit of buzz over the last six months).
So don’t lose hope all you anime fans. Keep trying to get those friends and family members into anime. They might not like the first or second thing you throw at them, but there is something for everybody in this broad, diverse medium; and if you are teetering on the fence about anime, please try it. Just remember anime isn’t a genre, but an art form in its own right.
What do you think? Leave a comment.