The Mainstreaming of Anime Has Failed

In All, Anime by Keskel

As I write this, I’m still recovering from this year’s Anime Expo, a convention dedicated to anime fandom of all stripes. As with every time I go to a con like this, I start thinking about the state of anime fandom and what it means to be a part of that, both as a consumer of media and as a social lifestyle. This year I’m less enthusiastic than usual, and for good reason.

Last month, Hulu did a great purge of its streaming anime content. A better writer than I has discussed the business reasons behind Hulu’s decision, and I have no intention of retreading that territory. Instead, I want to talk about what this means to the culture of anime fandom, especially given that Netflix has been doing the same thing (albeit more slowly)–what streaming anime did for anime culture, and what its demise means for our history and our future.

The First Age of Otaku

what is used to feel like to be an anime fan

I have been an otaku since the late ’90s. I was an otaku when there were serious conversations about whether the word had negative consequences in the wake of the Otaku Murderer case. I was an otaku before streaming even existed, when people got shows by sending blank VHS tapes and self-addressed return envelopes to anime fansubbers. When I have my annual post-con reflections, I usually feel that this is the best of all possible worlds for an anime fan. We’ve had streaming. We’ve had more social acceptance and cultural understanding. The very word “otaku,” signifying anime as a lifestyle choice, seems now more descriptive of early anime fans, people who would buy professional dubbing equipment and learn Japanese just to check the quality of fansubs. People who, thanks to the exorbitant pricing of legal anime on VHS and DVD, often resorted to pirating their favorite shows.

We don’t talk much about it now, but when anime was first licensed and released on DVD (remember Suncoast, anyone?) anime fans were looking at $20-40 per four-episode DVD. Being an anime fan then meant that you in part watched shows as they were fansubbed (before they were licensed for home video) because you couldn’t afford to watch all of your shows legally. Much of the early anime fan culture was directly inspired by the the difficulty of accessing media, and the raw amount of anime consumed by what we now consider a “casual” anime fan would be staggering to anime fans back then.

This also led to some very strange social experiences. Loaning people DVDs and copying fansub tapes forged social bonds out of necessity. Some of these bonds were healthy and long lasting. At times it meant that anime fan groups had to put up with the famous 5 geek social fallacies, because someone leaving (or being ejected from) the group often reduced their total access to anime.

But then streaming happened

That time was followed by a new Golden Age of anime fandom, when any fan could watch as much anime as they had time, legally, for less than the price of two DVDs back in the old days. But Hulu’s decision to purge its anime content marks the end of that age. Not because I personally have less access to anime as a result; but because it signifies the end of a relatively brief period when anime had a real chance to be more mainstream. Many areas of geek culture have become dominant–the rejuvenation of Dr. Who, the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the return of Star Trek, etc. For a while it looked like anime was headed in the same direction, towards being a “nerdy” aspect of the still mass-discussed, mass-appreciated medium. While major anime properties are still being mined for crossover potential (Ghost in the Shell as a live action film, Detective pikachu, etc), I now doubt that I will ever get to quote Gundam with a stranger I meet at a bar–the way I have gotten to discuss the reasons, say, Hank Pym is a poor Ant-Man in the cinematic adaptation. But for a few shining years, things were trending in that direction.

In short, at least among my friend group (over-educated American nerds), people could watch anime without being “anime fans.” You could recommend to your Muggle friends an anime that fit their sensibilities (one which didn’t involve fanservice, magical high schools or waking up in another world), and tell them, “It’s on Hulu,” or “It’s on Netflix,” and it would be.

It’s important, too, to recognize the profound importance of both Hulu and Netflix’s auto-recommend feature in this context: in both cases, not only would crossover shows (SAO, Fullmetal Alchemist) end up pushing their fans toward other, more obscure shows that they otherwise would not have found, but even non-anime shows would recommend (and be recommend by) anime, which situated the medium within the larger context of film and TV culture, rather than fencing it off into its own self-contained community.

Sure, we have not lost the top 20 shows (Naruto, Dragonball, and the like). What we’re losing is easy access for non-fans to the glorious long tail of interesting, obscure shows which represented a tremendous variation of both artistic inspiration and target audience. It was these shows that I could recommend freely to people–Psycho-Pass to a fan of dystopian cyberpunk works, for instance, or Claymore to a fan of dark gothic fantasy–without first warning them, “This is anime,” with all the baggage that once went with that.

It's okay Ed, I'm sad too

This easy access for non-initiates meant that there were real crossover opportunities for anime to be enjoyed by people who weren’t anime fans, who hadn’t built their whole life around watching anime. But that moment seems to be on its way out.

For better or worse, I’m going to talk about the mainstreaming of anime entirely in the context of its consumption in the U.S. Anime as a medium contains a variety of artistic endeavors from the past 20 years, ranging from complex works aimed at adults (Tatami Galaxy) to those which are literally ads for merchandise (Shinmai Maou no Testament).While it does seem that merchandise ads are becoming more common recently, that is beyond the scope of this post. Even given some of the off-putting artistic choices as of late (Seven Deadly Sin‘s gender roles, or the constant use of teenage protagonists), there are still a variety of interesting works to be found that would make good crossover shows for new fans. Together with the glorious long tail of the last 30 years of modern anime’s artistic inspiration and experimentation, there’s sure to be an anime to recommend to every prospective fan. Or at least there would be if those shows were still available for your non-otaku friends to experience on the platforms they are already using.

While Hulu is transitioning very suddenly, Netflix has been making this change more gradually, but they’re making it all the same. While Netflix used to use anime as cheap streaming content, especially since the licenses for a lot of these titles were underutilized following the late 2000s anime crash (and since good dubs existed), it is now moving towards a House of Cards model. Are you a fan of Aijin, Knights of Sidonia, or Seven Deadly Sins, all pre-existing mangas? The only legal way you’ll see them adapted as animes in this country is via Netflix. And while all of these shows might be “must watch” for anime fans, they are not particularly good mainstream crossover shows, for a number of reasons. The aesthetics in Sidonia and Aijin manage to combine some of the worst aesthetic tendencies of 3D, CG animation and traditional anime, while the problematic gender roles and casual tolerance of sexual harassment in Seven Deadly Sins in inexplicable to anyone not already a part of the anime community. I’m not trying to insult Kuromukuro, another Netflix entry, but it’s an anime show for anime fans (much of its plot is direct reference or homage to Evangelion and Full Metal Panic). When Netflix sidelines existing content in favor of exclusively available shows like this that appeal only to existing anime fans, it cripples the service’s ability to expose new, mainstream viewers to the medium.

The Death of History

she remembers history, because she is goth loli sherlock holmes

But there’s also a loss for existing anime fans. Because as a community we have a bad habit of forgetting our history. In the absence of the fansubs and now-defunct anime clubs of the ’80s and ’90s, many current anime fans form new groups in high school or college, and their knowledge of anime history only stretches back as far as the tastes and experience of the oldest member. So in this new streaming world order, where shows outside the top 10 are harder to see–and without a doubt, a number of shows are becoming harder to see every year–they’re less likely to be discovered and appreciated by new generations of viewers.

Let’s talk about House of Five Leaves. It’s about a shy, nebbish samurai who it turns out is good at swordfighting, but the show is not about samurai sword fights. It’s a series of overlapping character studies about a kidnapping ring in Feudal Japan, in an intimate, well-written and composed story. Each character’s motivations and interactions are elegantly explored, and the entire work is a complete and self-contained narrative. On MyAnimeList it’s rated at 7.94 out of 10, and I am floored that it has not broken the 8 barrier. (According to MAL, it is 611 on the list of highest rated shows, but only the 1284th most popular show.) Aside from its quality, House of Five Leaves is also a great counterargument to the traditional notion that anime is all panties, explosions and giant robots–or the more recent (and unfortunately more accurate) sentiment that anime is a series of idols, harems, magical high schools and people waking up in heavily gamified fantasy worlds. In short, it’s a great show that non-anime fans can enjoy. Five years ago, I saw House of Five Leaves on Netflix. Now it’s only available on Crunchyroll, so while it can be streamed for free (with ads) by anime fans, there’s no easy place to send Muggles to get them to give the show a chance.

Another show, which I always love to recommend, is Level E. Level E is a show about a young baseball prodigy in a baseball high school who happens across an alien; men in black and rival aliens soon follow. Except it turns out the main character is the alien, who’s a ridiculous prankster and is just trolling the viewer’s expectations of getting a standard story about a prototypical everyman who gets caught up in something bigger than himself. From there, the show explores almost every possible sci-fi trope, and also contains the first example I’ve ever seen of the (now overdone to death) “Teenagers participate in a real life RPG” story. It’s surprising, funny, and utterly original. It’s also now only available on Funimation, where it used to be on Hulu.

It’s not that either of these shows have disappeared (at least as long as Funimation and Crunchyroll remain solvent), it’s that both of these shows have moved from the domain of fans and non-fans alike to a what is a fan-only space. Everyone I know has a Netflix account (or someone else’s Netflix password); over half have a Hulu account (and the rest are aware of what it is). Telling a friend or acquaintance that a show is on Netflix means that their decision to watch or not watch is an easy one based entirely on their interest. Telling them that it’s on Crunchyroll, a site they may not have heard of and one whose design is actively off-putting to non-anime fans, is a completely different experience, more akin to telling a Muggle in the 1990s to hunt down an obscure fansub. Some might argue that shifting the pop culture zeitgeist towards the easily accessible is one of the flaws of our modern society, but for the anime fan interested in converting the uninitiated into avid viewers it’s not only an accepted reality but a welcome one. A few years ago, often even an obscure or older anime recommendation was just a few clicks away from the brand new show they were already watching on Netflix. When history is harder to share, fewer people end up learning and passing it on, and the medium’s cultural viewpoint shrinks to the pinhole of only the most popular, most recent works.

Language Barriers

is bullshit symbolism a language?

Astute readers will realize one of the other big limitations of this 2nd Age of the Otaku is language. Netflix and Hulu used to have both English and Japanese versions of many shows. But Crunchyroll has very few English dubs. Funimation’s dubs are only available behind a paywall. Kuromukuro has been released on Netflix without an English dub.

Why is this important? In the circles of anime fandom, it’s easy to forget that English dubs are the accessible and therefore mainstream preference for non-fans. Attack on Titan, NarutoDragonball ZDeathnote and more are mainstream only when dubbed. Many, many people are willing/able to enjoy Japanese cartoons if they are dubbed in English. A great, great many people aren’t willing to take a chance on subtitles.

Historically in the fandom, the subs vs dubs approach boils down to editing. English dubs were often produced with the hope of airing on American Broadcast TV, which meant they were often edited for American sensibilities or younger audiences (in the dubbed version of Yu-Gi-Oh, for instance, characters don’t die, they’re banished to “the shadow realm”). Plus, often the dubs were just awful (sometimes intentionally so):

So anime fandom has typically disdained dubs, particularly more recently, because subtitled versions of shows can be available in America as the same time the show airs in Japan.

The problem, of course, with this individual fan preference for watching subtitled, Japanese-audio shows as they air is that, when magnified across the fandom, it makes dubs (and even home video releases) less likely to happen. This “I want to mainline anime as it comes from Japan” attitude of fans in this 2nd Age of Otaku, combined with the resultant lack of physical media and this new downfall of streaming anime access, has dire consequences for the medium’s future potential.

No Otaku friend I'm good.

As I write this, If want to recommend as my “Catch of the Week” shows like Gosick or The Mystic Archives of Dantalian, I am recommending piracy. Neither of these shows is licensed to be streamed on any site I can find at this time, and neither has ever had a physical release in this country. Both are interesting shows, and worth appreciation, analysis and critique, especially for their historical importance in directly inspiring the character of Beatrice in Re:ZERO.

Given the historical attitude toward piracy within the anime community, I am not concerned that Gosick will be forgotten (It broke the 8.0 ratings barrier on MAL, so it will find new viewers that way), but it is a loss to otakus that we are forced to rely on illegal pirate sites to preserve anime worthy of fan analysis.  It is a loss to possible future fans that we cannot recommend a show like Gosick to a fan of Sherlock Holmes without sending them into the spaces of the internet that are maintained by and for anime fans.

In the glorious golden age, anyone could jump on Hulu or Netflix to see a show like Gosick and maybe come away with a new appreciation for anime. In that era, the mainstreaming of anime seemed within reach. Now we’re driven back onto our pirate ships, while our muggle friends remain ashore, the vast and lonely sea widening between us.