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One Year Out—Reflections on the Industry

It’s been a year since my last post on antiotaku, and while I still think it was wise to end the blog when I did, I had a sudden desire to offer some reflection on the past year in anime. Perhaps the recent passing of Halloween has implanted some desire to have this blog, zombie-like, rise from the grave. Primarily, I have that urge because, from the standpoint of an anime consumer, things have never been better.

I don’t want to make it sound like the industry as a whole is sound—there are plenty of questions about how anime studios will continue to fund their work and the viability of the world anime market in an era of fansubs. But, if you are someone like me, an American who watches a fair amount of anime in any given season, the last year (really year and half) have been remarkably positive. Here are just some of the reasons why:

I’ll be splitting my screen shots between new and old shows this time, starting with my favorite series of the current season. My Little Monster is everything I want out of a zany romantic comedy, and the sort of thing that you could never hope to pull off in a live action series

1) The increasing ubiquity of legal streaming. As I closed up the 2011 Summer season awards, it seemed like practically every show worth watching was being streamed by Crunchyroll. That’s not as much the case anymore, but only because Funimation is getting back into the streaming game after their relationship with NicoNico collapsed. This past season alone, Funimation picked up six new series, including both of the noitaminA shows, while Crunchyroll, including late pick ups, still collected an impressive lineup of new entries. At the time antiotaku started up, legal streaming options were available only for a handful of shows. Now, it seems, only a handful of shows don’t get grabbed by someone.

Streaming isn’t limited to the Cult of the New, either. Funimation has done a solid job of moving some of its older catalog onto Hulu and other markets, including gems like Haibane Renmei. Crunchyroll, too, has formed a solid relationship with DVD distributors like NIS America, and now antiotaku-covered shows like Night Raid, Kimi ni Todoke, and Anohana are available streaming.

Even really niche offerings like ef are now available. For reference, going back to old reviews and adding in links to stream options can be really time consuming

Available in the US and Canada, at any rate. If you aren’t in region one and/or an English speaking country, much of the streaming boom has passed you by. Crunchyroll is expanding into new markets (and new language markets) as fast as it can, and home-grown options are developing in some other European countries, but someone living in Indonesia, for example, hasn’t had quite the same benefits that we’ve had in America.

But there’s reason to believe that even this, too, will slowly change, particularly as the streaming boomlet continues to rise (and enterprises like Crunchyroll and Hulu continue to be profitable). Crunchyroll’s decision to go legitimate back in 2009 has permanently changed the status quo; I only hope that anime studios who fail to see the value of the new system and fans insistent on sticking with illegal options even when legal ones are available both reconsider what would be best for the industry.

Toradora is an example of a (great) show that has a very restricted release region. I think it has something to do with the fact that Crunchyroll got the rights from NIS America, which itself only has rights for Region One distribution

2) The increasing number of good shows. Back in 2010, when bear and I started the site, we did so because we thought that the anime market was improving in quality, with an increasing number of solid offerings each year. As it happens, 2010 dashed our hopes in that regard, with the best the year had to offer all airing at the very start. In truth, there are only a handful of shows from that year that reached greatness, and possibly less than 10 that are even worth remembering.

It’s unfortunate in some ways that we chose to get into blogging at that time—I think bear faced burnout from doing too many otaku-bait shows, and I personally struggled through reviewing parts of Maid-sama and Amagami. But 2011, which dropped three gems at us from the start of the year (all of which we covered) and continually produced winners throughout, was far more impressive. That trend has not stopped in 2012: I mentioned in my last post that I was watching 12 total series at the start of the Fall 2011 season, and right now, I’m following 13. I expect to drop fewer shows this time around too.

I did drop quite a few shows from Fall 2011, and others that made the cut still didn’t reach their full potential. But Fate/Zero, Bakuman., and Chihayafuru all did exactly exactly what I wanted them to. Even better, Bakuman. is back on the air, and Chihayafuru soon will be

I don’t mean to say that we are lacking for overt exploitation, overuse of stock characters and storylines, or any of the other things that plague anime, and mass media in general. I do want to say that if the general rule is “90% of everything is trash” then anime has proven an exception for close to two years now. The lows of the anime industry might be really, really low, but the ratio of low to high has been much, much better of late.

3) A growing interest in mature themes. By “mature” I do not mean sexual content or graphic violence—anime has had both of those for quite some time. Instead, I mean serious themes of growth, maturation, and reflection on issues more timeless in nature that just some supernatural threat to end the world or another half-baked setup for a harem around milquetoast protagonist #57. Instead, we’ve been seeing stories with ideas that touch something a bit more universal.

Hyouka was a show from last season, for example, that touched on themes of growth, being rooting in a community, the hesitations of youth, and the burdens of other people’s expectations—sometimes all in a single episode. It was also produced by Kyoto Animation, which meant it was absurdly gorgeous

This isn’t quite the same thing as having more good shows for two reasons. First, not all the latest good shows have had such an interest. It’s still possible to have a comedy that does nothing but comedy, or an action series which doesn’t expand much past a save the world, get the girl plot, and so long as the comedy or the action is really good, the show works fine. Likewise, some of the shows which have expanded into deeper themes haven’t had the story or writing to match their ambitions. I think of shows like [C] or Fractale, which had serious, and I think welcome, messages about the flaws of modern society or the need to put future generations ahead of our present comforts and security. That I align with the underlying messages of those shows didn’t change my opinion that neither were worth my time to watch.

No, where this trend has had its best reception, ironically, is in the standard “anime anime” shows. Specifically, more and more I see the themes of serious, antiotaku-approved shows like Usagi Drop or Honey and Clover combined with otaku-bait characters and plot lines that you’d expect in the trashy show of a season. That a show like Papa no Iukoto o Kikinasai!—where one only needs to read the series description to see the immediate opportunities for perverted pandering—manages to touch on the same ideas of the joys of being a parent and finding family where you can that Usagi Drop exemplified is nothing short of amazing.

Likewise, the themes of talent and its burdens which underwrote much of Honey and Clover are laden throughout the currently airing Pet Girl of Sakurasou. Pet Girl doesn’t stay as wholesome as Papakiki, nor avoid cliches as easily, but it is—at present—far more interesting than one would expect

This is by no means a complete list of the developments in the industry in recent years, but it does highlight some of the positive trends. In particular, it’s nice to see writers and producers realizing that maybe a show aimed at otaku can still do more than just layer on the fan service. And each season, there is one or two shows which aim for universality; as of late, they’ve been succeeding as often as not.

So, while I won’t go back to episodic blogging anytime soon, please be assured I have not given up on the medium. If anything, I’m excited to see how it will continue to evolve. The trashy shows that I loved to rip apart in my blogging days are still around. But there is so much more to anime than that, and that has become much more evident since the last time I posted. I can only hope the trend will continue.

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