Let’s talk anime for a few minutes.
In 2003, the US anime market peaked, pulling in just short of 4.5 billion dollars. Ten years later, the take is roughly half of that.
The most obvious of reasons would be the economy. But it is also incorrect. The industry, growing until 2003, took a steady dive in the three years following… years where the US economy was growing steadily, employment was near record lows, and personal disposable income and personal credit were near all time highs. If it were a problem with the economy, the failure of the market would shadow the declining economy.
No, there are reasons, strong but less obvious ones.
First, piracy. Anime is a subgenre of film, specifically animated film from Japan. As it has become faster to copy and easier to store files, piracy has become simpler. Simultaneously, with the promulgation of the “free information” movement, a reasonably large contingent of fans has developed the attitude that all artwork should be free, with the art consumer paying only for worthwhile work. The problem with this is that it has led to many people taking the work for free and rationalizing their lack of contribution. Other people are paying for it. I’m low on money and need every dime. I only give money to the work that greatly impresses me. All convenient rationalizations, all of which leaves the creator underfunded.
Second, distribution. With the diminished money in the field, anime distributors have been folding up shop. Most of the 2003 companies translating anime have either closed entirely or ended new production. As fewer publishers are producing new product, prospective buyers have a smaller list of available titles to choose from. As the genre has within it many subgenres, many of those subgenres are underserved. This produces few options for interested viewers.
Third, competition. When Anime was first getting a foothold in the US market, there were very few animated features being made for teens, much less adults. As animation has become cheaper and has demonstrated success, it has developed institutional fan bases. The Simpsons and South Park are now established brands, as are Family Guy and Adult Swim. All the work is fighting for the limited dollars of similar demographics. This holds true also for video games, many of which have graduated over the years into becoming little more than interactive animated movies.
Fourth, quality. It is inarguable that the actual animation quality has increased over the years. Cheap computer animation has resulted in a fluidity of motion that must often be adjusted down to make it more palatable to the viewer’s eye. But by making the work cheaper to produce, the door has been opened for a bevy of inferior products. Poor plotting, trite dialogue, incomprehensible motivation, rehashed ideas from older successful works – it’s all there for the world to see. And that leads right into…
Fifth, turnover. New fans aren’t being generated at the same rate that old fans are getting out of the fandom. While some burnout is expected in fandom, especially at times when inferior work floods the market, new fans typically step in. But in order for that to happen, there has to be an access point. There simply is no longer an effort to get shows like Kimba, Star Blazers, Battle of the Planets, Sailor Moon, Pokemon and Carcaptor Sakura onto the television market, especially with the death of Saturday Morning Cartoons at the hands of Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Boomerang. Simultaneously, the distinctive aspects of anime in terms of eyes, hair color and more have influenced modern US character designers, with the result of shows like Teen Titans and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic having a feel of “American made, Japanese inspired”. Part of what made the look of the shows distinctive is gone, and the original series aren’t easily accessible to kids. Without a simple, palatable introduction to the format, new viewers are unlikely to spend time investigating the genre’s works.
The US anime market has been doing all it can to stem the losses and regain their forward impetus. They seem to be doing a fairly good job at staunching the bleed of dollars, by shifting their marketing. The publishers have been aggressive in marketing to new platforms, have strived to develop positive relationships with prominent online review sites, and have made it easier for fans to purchase entire series vice the old single-disc format that trickled series out across months, three to five episodes at a time. Unfortunately, giving a lot more product for the same amount of money has resulted in even lower product quality and forcing companies out of business as their profit vs. overhead ratio dipped too low.
There are things that can be done to fix this. Better works which are marketed to children is one, even if it means bringing back to television famous older shows like Sailor Moon or Star Blazers. Currently, the only truly effective efforts in this regard are being made by Miyazaki, who has formed his own cottage industry. Better works for adults is another, especially as the current crop of publishers and creators need to recognize the quantity of works – old and new – available to the potential viewer. Most important by far, though, is a personal connection between creator and fans. Only by convincing the fans to pay money to support the creators will the industry bounce back, much less flourish.
This is a short discussion about Anime. Unfortunately, with only slight modifications, it’s also a short discussion about horror fiction, or comics. These are all industries which have public interest far lower than during their heyday, and they are all industries that can correct that fact, if they want to.