Anime decade: From 'Japan Cool' to 'cooling off'

Anime decade: From 'Japan Cool' to 'cooling off'

Matt Alt asks, how did Japan's national artistic treasure -- animation -- go from boom to bust during the first decade of the 21st century?
Japanese anime
We may be projecting, but there seems to be a hint of frustration in those giant eyes.

I will admit it: I was a teenaged anime fanatic. Encounters with anime classics in the 1970s and 1980s ignited a fascination with Japanese language and culture that drew me to the country, first as a tourist, then as a student and now as a resident. This personal journey makes reading -- and writing about -- the industry's recent stumbles all the more poignant.

I was surprised and shocked to witness the rise of anime in the 1990s, and now I feel those same emotions again as I watch it collapse in slow motion. Truly, the early 2000s timeline reads like the plot of an epic novel with an appropriately apocalyptic anime ending.

Here is a timeline of the last decade's greatest developments in anime.

2000: Thanks to a string of international successes in the mid-1990s, including hits like "Pokémon," "Gundam Wing," "Dragonball," and "Sailor Moon," Japan's anime industry finds itself enjoying unprecedented success both domestically and abroad. The majority of shows created for male anime fans are sci-fi epics, many featuring heroes piloting giant robots or protagonists who are robots themselves.

2001: American journalist Douglas McGray dubs Japan "a cultural superpower," while coining the phrase "gross national cool" to describe the outsized influence of Japanese entertainment. "Cowboy Bebop," a hip sci-fi series about bounty hunters in space, debuts on the US Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, creating new legions of foreign anime fans.

2002: Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" wins an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, the first time the American film industry so recognizes an anime.

2003: The Wachovski Brothers commission a series of nine anime short films based on their smash-hit Matrix films. Dubbed "The Animatrix," it becomes one of the top selling anime titles abroad that year. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino incorporates a flashy anime sequence into "Kill Bill, Vol. 1."

2005: Just as foreign audiences are warming up to the idea that animated fare isn't just for kids, Japan's anime industry throws them a curve ball. The success of the novel and television series "Densha Otoko" -- an alleged "true story" about an otaku who gets up the nerve to ask out a "normal" woman he encounters on the train during his daily commute -- legitimizes and empowers the local otaku community. This in turn leads to more and more animated series aimed squarely at their demographic.

Because said demographic consists almost entirely of eternally single, socially awkward men, their tastes tend towards wish-fulfillment fantasy plots starring beautiful young lolitas -- who are willing to hang out with eternally single, socially awkward men. This fetishization of girlish naiveté and innocence is known as "moé," and it will dictate the industry's path for the remainder of the decade. Critics, however, believe that the development will potentially hamper Japan's ability to export anime, as the moé concept comes across as utterly creepy to most foreign audiences.

2006: The industry achieves peak revenues of ¥241.5 billion per year. More animated fare is being created than ever before. In spite of this apparent success, it becomes public that a third of people working in the anime industry make less than ¥1 million a year -- a poverty-level wage.

2007 - 2008: The first visible cracks appear in anime's hip facade. An overabundance of anime made purely for anime fans (rather than for the traditional demographic of children and teenagers) knocks down the average profits per title as hastily-animated niche productions flood the market. Anonymous complaints from industry insiders incensed at atrocious pay and working conditions continue to mount. More and more of the basic work needed to train the next generation, such as "in-betweeing" (the grunt work of animating the many intermediate cels between the key frames) is farmed out to second- and even third-world countries -- including by some reports, North Korea. This results in a serious hollowing out of the industry's future talent pool. Meanwhile in the United States, the number of anime shows airing in the television marketplace drops dramatically.

2009: The types of anime shows popular among Japanese and foreign fans continues to diverge. The most buzz-worthy domestic fare are super-niche moé and lolicon shows brimming with inside jokes and anime stereotypes that few other than dyed-in-the-wool otaku can decipher. In Japan, a poll conducted by the otaku matchmaking service Otakuma reveals that four out of five of the top shows watched by female anime fans are about giant robots, while four out of five of the top shows watched by male anime fans are about little girls.

While anime created for kids is on the wane, the debut of a life-sized, 18-meter tall life-sized version of the iconic 1970s robot hero Mobile Suit Gundam in a Tokyo park is greeted by some four million nostalgic fans over the course of its display. Many are grown fans who bring their children to see the thirty year old character.

Meanwhile, in a Japanese radio interview, director Mamoru Oshii publicly admits that he was forced to use computers to animate his latest film "Sky Crawlers," because there simply "aren't enough animators out there to let us do everything hand-drawn. They're not around anymore." The general feeling is that Japan may not be able to sustain its anime industry in the coming years.

What will the second decade of the 21st century have in store for this Japanese pop art form? Check back with CNNGo in 2020, and we'll let you know.

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