Saturday, March 7, 2009

Hard Times for the Japanese Animation Industry and How Does This Affect Superman and Spidey and All the Other Supercats and Kittens?

The Japan Times Online has a fascinating article about the current state of the vaunted Japanese animation industry. And it's not good. Can you imagine being a graduate of an animation university and still ending up living at home, making 80,000 yen (that's about $814USD) a month, giving up paying into the national pension plan... and considering yourself one of the lucky ones?

It's definitely sad to think of young Japanese animators giving up their dreams of being the next Miyazaki Hayao. So much creativity and energy lost.

The article ties some of the animation erosion to shifting demographics. Animation viewers are skewing older and demanding content that limits its mainstream appeal especially in Western markets. According to the article, this leads to increased inroads into the industry by video-sharing sites. It seems almost a paradox-- animation fans are getting older and want sexier, more violent cartoons that then alienate... animation fans. There are perhaps some parallels to the current state of mainstream American comics. Demographics show comics fans older than their traditional presumed readership of kids and teenagers, these fans seem to want darker, more sexually-oriented material, potential new readers are alienated.

Occasional Superheroine describes the average (or is that mean... I can never keep these things straight) mainstream comic reader as "Male, 20-25, video-game player, disposable income, 'techie,' single." Which is cool. Nice guys and all that, not to seem too patronizing. Sounds a lot like the description of the typical otaku, the Japanese "fanboy." Or, his more cuddly, slightly more socially acceptable brother, the akiba-kei. Although some of these otaku and akiba-kei take their fannish ways to extremes that would shock even the most hardened unfairly generalized parent's-cellar-dweller stereotype genre geek.

But getting back to the American comic fan. These guys are only a small segment of the overall national population and therefore only a smidgen of the potential audience for comics. I'm not going to argue mainstream comics need to be taken away from them, or changed from what they enjoy. Comics for them, comics for me, comics for everybody. But what I am concerned with are limited choices creating a limited readership. Limited genres, limited story choices, limited character presentation, limited aesthetics.

Why not another Batman, one who's less of an asshole? Why not more stuff along the lines of DC's All-Star titles, a more condensed, iconic version of various characters? I'm sure more people think of Spider-Man as Tobey Maguire than they do of him as Peter Parker. Why not construct something along those lines, capturing Spidey's essence, without getting too bogged down in his history? Why not... and this is my biggest, fondest wish... a greater selection of genres? In Japan, you can read about comics about sports, about relationships, about little old ladies, aspiring musicians, doctors... just to name a few. And these are mainstream, not niche. They're in bookstores, right out in the open. The new Yajimaya here at MayOne has shelf after shelf of comic books, arranged by age and gender. I don't see an American equivalent to that, just a shelf of mostly superheroes in a Borders or Books-A-Million... half the space filled with these delightfully diverse Japanese imports!

Are we shutting out readers to cater to a limited market, or is this audience all we can realistically expect for comics? Comic book movies are all the rage (or so I'm led to believe) and must be selling tickets to a wide spectrum of people in order to rack up those impressive box office figures each year. So I tend to think the larger audience is there, somehow, somewhere. But would broader-appeal comics actually sell? I wonder in a market that's seen audience-grabs like DC's Minx imprint falter.

Could be it's all a matter of perception. In Japan, you generally don't want to be seen as an otaku. Perhaps a similar resistance to comic reading will always exist in Western markets, by which I mean primarily the United States and Canada. There may simply be readers who will never read comics in the same way there are millions of people who rarely read anything, including newspapers. The Western otaku may be comics last best hope... but I tend to doubt it. Certainly he's part of it, but not the whole.

Well, I'm touching the surface and that only generally. There must be more factors involved, things like economics, competition from other media, perceived quality, things beyond my meagre abilities to analyze. The list could go on and this is mostly a blog for making fun of stuff I like. Talk about your paradoxes! So I'll leave you, my much smarter (and possibly better looking) reader, to figure out what it all means and where it's going.

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