Tonight’s piece is a quasi-response to a question posed by RawMeatCowboy from Anime Your Way. He’s a great fellow whose passion for anime knows no bounds.
Over the decades, the anime industry has gone through a number of changes. As time has gone by, countless trends and fads have flickered across screens, both large and small. From the space opera epics of the ’70s, to sci-fi romps of the ’80s, to the harem boom of the ’90s, which gave way to the maid boom of the early 2000s, and eventually created the moe market of today, the medium of anime has constantly evolved, and constantly changed with the market before it.
The rose-tinted lens of nostalgia paints earlier times with an incredibly kind lens. Many today who look back at the ’80s think fondly of the sci-fi classics that came about. And who would fault them? This was an era that gave birth to the likes of Patlabor, Macross, Akira, and the Dirty Pair. Dragon Ball made its debut, and many began their travels down Orange Road. Classics were born, and seemed to come about with reckless abandon in a torrent of incredible content.
We on the west were fortunate in this regard. Thanks to the lens of selective importation, many fans were spared the lower-grade shows that can be found at almost every turn in today’s market. We can easily look back and say “the 1980s were huge on sci-fi” because, well… they were – to a point. However, for hardcore sci-fi epic like Dallos, there were dozens of titles like Maya the Bee, Adventures of the Little Koala, Noozles, or Jungle Book: Shonen Mowgli, which were smaller titles for broader audiences. Many of these were (poorly) dubbed for western audiences1 and thrown into strange time slots on networks like Nickelodeon or Fox Kids. Due to the clique-ish nature of anime as a whole at the time, and the fact that the major sellers were AnimEigo and Streamline Pictures, many fans remained fairly insulated from anything but the biggest and brightest at the time, and couldn’t help but ignore the more mundane, less experimental shows.
As time went on and the market expanded, publishers began pumping out more and more of the standard fare, to see what would stick, and what would sell. Japan’s gradual shift away from sci-fi became apparent, as cavalier shows like Captain Harlock became less prevalent, and viewers began to see the more formulaic, more structured side of the industry. We saw archetypes become cliches, which turned into stereotypes. We saw content shift from one trend to the next, and we heard customers of all stripes jusifiably gripe about not being represented anymore. Even in the ’90s, post-Eva, we were hearing cries of how experimentation and innovation in anime were dead, and that thing would never be the same.
Well, they got one part right.
With the shifting of time, it’s only natural for trends to shift, and for tastes to change. However, to argue that there is no experimentation in anime is simply careless. Titles that test boundaries and blaze paths in new directions are constantly being produced, be it the surreal yet fetching Tatami Galaxy, the western-aping Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, or the upcoming 100% improvised Ad Lib Anime Kenkyusho. Unlike in the ’80s and early ’90s, we don’t have the situation where only ten titles a year hit the market. We’re being bombarded constantly with titles on DVD, on streams, even on TV as networks like Adult Swim fill anime blocks. The signal is there. unfortunately, we just need to wade through more noise to reach it, nowadays.
1: If you thought 4Kids’s treatment of One Piece was bad, I encourage you to look into these adaptations!