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Anime is Crumbling Under The Pressure To Make Money

Anime needs to Ante Up

Disclaimers

  • I'm an anime fan and I love the medium. Please read the post before commenting.
  • If I critique your favorite anime, I'm not attacking you personally.
  • I'm not pining for "the good old days" of anime. I just want creative people to be allowed to take risks.
  • This isn't going to be a post about how anime is "toxic". There are certain aspects of it that make me uncomfortable, but as someone who's not japanese, I think it's a little ignorant to call anime as a whole "insensitive" and "unacceptable" when I don't have any first hand experience of the cultural context. There's a fine line between critique and claiming moral superiority :eyeroll:
  • Spoilers for Cowboy Bebop and Death Note

Required Reading: Why Does a lot of Anime Suck?

Before I delve into how anime can be terrible, I want to first explain why lots of anime is terrible, and why it seems like there's more terrible anime now than ever. I want to do this because, on its own, a post simply describing how anime is awful serves no purpose: it doesn't get to the root of the problem and doesn't offer a solution. And sure, it's fun to play the role of high-brow critic every once in a while, but there's enough bloggers and vloggers out there already doing this.

Instead, I want to first give some context as to how we got to this point, and explain why the anime industry is consistently making the same mistakes that I outline in this post. By spreading awareness, we as consumers can use our collective powers to drive the change in the industry that we want to see (i.e. better anime, less garbage). I don't want to kill anime. Instead, I want to see it change.

So, let's begin with a question: why does it seem like anime has been declining in quality?

Some readers may be quick to attribute this to recency bias. Recency bias affects entertainment of all kinds, as you especially hear it with music. How many times have you heard the phrase, "they just don't make music like they used to"? The answer is probably, "too many times". But c'mon, there's tons of amazing music out there. You just have to do some digging on your own, beyond the Billboard Top 100.

In regards to anime, an argument of recency bias would mean that we only remember the good anime from 5+ years ago, while we forget the terrible shows that we watched, leading to an illusion that anime is worse now than ever, despite that not actually being true. I'll admit that this probably contributes to some, but not all, of the sentiment that anime has gotten worse.

Unfortunately, I think there's more to blame than recency bias or nostalgia for older anime that we watched during our childhood: I actually do think that anime is getting worse. In fact, I'd argue that the anime industry as a whole is going through a rough transitional period, and I'm not sure if it'll survive. Undoubtedly, anime will continue to chug along as a business, but will it continue an art form? As a medium to study? As a topic to debate over with strangers on the internet?

As something truly unique, strange, and wonderful, I'm worried for the future of anime. My logic is explained in the two sections below.

Anime is Hard and Expensive, and It's Only Getting Worse

The primary reason why we end up with bad anime is because anime is very, very hard to make. As the medium has evolved and technology has advanced, your average consumer has become very picky about their animation. They've probably seen movies like Into the Spiderverse, or maybe they've seen lovingly-crafted works like Space Dandy or My Neighbor Totoro, the latter of which had a budget of over $200 million. These examples raise the artistic bar and elevate their respective mediums. But as the bar rises, so do consumers' expectations.

Unfortunately, your average anime fan probably doesn't know anything about about the difficulties of producing 24 minutes of fully-animated, fully voiced animation. As a result, when that same anime fan watches something like ZOMBIE LAND SAGA, they'll likely think, "Wow, this anime looks like crap!". Check out the video below to see for yourself how awful this anime looks during it's climactic, final performance:

CGI is not the issue, here. Instead, take note of the garish, puke-ish color schemes, the choppy framerates of the animation, and the lifeless cinematography.

I have a hard time disagreeing with that average anime fan: aside from the first couple of episodes, Zombieland Saga looks absolutely terrible. Unfortunately, lots of anime shows in 2020 look as good (or worse) than Zombieland Saga. Obviously, that does not bode well for the future of the industry when your average consumer only has big-budget anime films and shows as their reference point.

With that said, I think that it's a little unfair to compare to compare your average, middle-of-the-road anime to something like Into the Spiderverse or My Neighbor Totoro since the later two had budgets in the hundreds of millions, while your average anime is given a budget of around 2 million US dollars. We're comparing apples to diamond-encrusted oranges.

I think it's especially unfair because, based on my understanding, japanese anime is one of the hardest kinds of of artwork to animate: since its inception, japanese anime has always been rooted in beautiful, artistic, and highly-detailed imagery. Take a look at the comparison below:

For those that don't know, the left is Naruto, and the right is Timmy from "The Fairly Odd Parents", a very popular American Animated TV show.

Notice how Naruto's design is much more detailed: his hands are drawn much more accurately, his clothes have shading and folds much more realistically, and to me, his design as a still frame is much more interesting to look at.

But the cost of such an interesting and detailed design is a design that's time-intensive to animate. To compensate for this, you'll often see:

  • Stiff, one-or-two frames of animation
  • Still-frames with no animation, or with only pannings of the camera
  • Re-used animations and scenes from earlier episodes
  • Simple "lip-flapping" instead of proper phonetic lip-syncing to spoken dialog.

Now, take a look at Timmy's design from "The Fairly Odd Parents", picutred on the right. Compared to Naruto, his design may seem outright amateurish at first glance. But as a result of The Fairly Odd Parents' simpler designs, the show's character animations are much more fluid and expressive than Naruto's. Take a look at the shows frantic opening for reference, and notice how much smoother the animation is than your typical anime scene. In general, when designs are simpler, they're easier and cheaper to animate.

This isn't a condemnation of japanese or western animation. Rather, this is just a frank analysis of how each type of animation chooses to deal with the reality of limited time and budgets. Western animation has handled this limitation via simplistic character designs that are easy to animate, while anime has done the opposite: appealing character designs with limited animation.

Neon Genesis: Evangelion has very intricate artwork, but stiff animation. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'd argue that it's just a characteristic of the medium. Image Source

But as I've stated above, consumers are starting to tolerate the limited animation techniques of anime less and less. As a result, this puts the anime industry between a rock and a hard place: how do anime creatives stay true to the roots of anime, which emphasizes detailed artwork and intricate designs, while keeping up with consumer expectations without spending a ton of money?

The short answer is: they can't. They need to spend lots of money in order to keep up with consumer expectations. See the following excerpt from a report written by the Association of Japanese Animations (AJA):

“
[T]here is a strong demand for higher quality of animations. It is also evidence of growing understanding for the situation. Yet some animation studios which fail to match the required quality may face the risk of failure if they are late to improve productivity...on the other hand, some say the production costs of certain works are pushed up due to the entry of new players, including domestic game companies, Netflix, Amazon and Chinese businesses.
”

In other words, in order to keep up with expectations and to remain competitive, Japanese animation studios can't simply fall back to their old ways of still-frame lip-flapping. Instead, as the quote above suggests, they'll need to increase their spending simply to survive. Consumers will simply look elsewhere if the japanese anime industry can't keep up.

You may correctly point out that the industry is making more revenue than ever before, but I'd argue that isn't necessarily a sign of good things to come. This is simply the anime industry keeping pace with the upward trend of the the entertainment indsutry as a whole. With declining sales in home ownership, car sales, and other luxury goods (because people can't afford those things), that surplus money has to go somewhere. In fact, I'd argue that with the entertainment indsutry increasing in size, this puts even more pressure on the anime industry to improve their output, as there are even more competitors in their general sector (i.e. video games, mobile games, light novels, etc).

What happens when studios refuse to ante up and increase spending to afford better artwork and animation? We get Zombieland Sagas, or Ghost in the Shell reboots. In general, we these shows that are trying desperately to reign in their budgets, keep their characters nicely detailed as is expected in anime, but also with higher-quality, smoother animations. But as one might be able to see, these goals are contradictory: good animation costs money, and it's impossible to keep costs low without sacrificing either animation quality or animation details. CGI is one mechanism for achieving smoother animations without huge costs, but without skilled CGI artists (which cost money), bland backgrounds and lifeless (excuse the zombie pu) character designs are often the result.

Many anime studios can't cope with these harsh realities of the modern consumer entertainment landscape, which is why many mainstream shows are often ugly mishmashes of handrawn animation with jarring, out-of-place CGI. These studios are aware that consumers want great animation and great anime-style visual artwork, but they simply can't make the financial logistics work to actuate these goals.

Expensive Anime is Too Big to Fail, so No One Takes Risks Anymore

There are anime studios that have the means to dump more money into artwork and animation, and when the decision is made to spend the necessary time and money to craft a truly great show, the results can be extraordinary.

But these decisions to spend more money don't simply exist in a vacuum. When anime becomes more expensive to make, it means that anime studios have less tolerance for any one show to perform poorly. In other words, now more than ever, the single failure of a show can financially ruin an entire studio.

This is terrible for the anime industry because when a studio literally can't afford failure, then they'll be pressured to make creative decisions that make them money, rather than decisions that produce quality anime shows. And no, these two outcomes are often not aligned (more on that in the following sections).

For their financial survival, this leads anime studios to make one of two decisions:

  1. Produce as many cheaply-made shows as possible. This increases the studio's tolerance for failure.
  2. Produce less shows, and ensure that each show is a massive hit.

This has had a drastic impact on the anime industry. For proof, take a look at your average 2020 anime season:

  • Dozens of cheaply-produced light novel adaptations
  • Romantic-comedy harems
  • Videogame / High-fantasy / Isekai
  • Videogame / High-fantasy / Isakai, but subverted for comedic effect
  • Cute girls doing cute things

I'm not saying that these genres produce inherently bad anime, but I don't think one can argue with me that in 2020, these genres aren't exciting. Rather, they can be considered "safe". They aren't novel or unique, and they can probably grab a sizeable audience based on concept alone.

This isn't because the anime industry has "lost its touch": I'm sure that there's just as many eager and creative people in the industry today as there was in the 80's, 90's and 2000's. In fact, I'm sure there are young adults that grew up the same anime that I did, and want nothing more than to pursue their dreams of making something special, money be damned.

But for these anime studios, the cost of failure is much higher than it used to be. As a result, when producing a show, the anime industry has placed a much greater importance on making money. To be fair, this is not an indictment of the anime industry, bur rather, this is simply an observation of how dire the situation is for the industry. Most of these anime studios need to prioritize making money with every single show they make in order for them to survive.

But when making money becomes the singular, enveloping focus of a once-artistic endeavor, that's when things start to go awry.

How To Tell if An Anime Isn't Worth Your Time

So, how can you tell if an anime has fallen victim to the pressures of making money, and therefore isn't worth your time? Below, I'll outline three major "Red Flags" to watch out for. All of them, I argue, are implemented in major mainstream anime with the sole purpose of making money, and their mere presence in an anime significantly detracts from its quality. Upon detecting one of these red flags, I'd recommend that you spend watch something else.

Red Flag #1: Waifu Baiting

For those that don't know, "waifu" is a term used to refer to a female character that one would consider to be "wife material" ("waifu" being a phonetically-japanese pronunciation of the word "wife"). Fans of anime like to debate and discuss which waifu of their favorite anime is "the best waifu", and these discussions can go on for days/months/years. I don't engage in these debates, but as an outsider, I consider them to be harmless fun. You may argue that it's female objectification, but men are occasionally objectified, too. And in general, as long as we all recognize that real human beings should be treated with much more respect than these fictional characters, then I don't think it's too much of an issue.

Let's all be honest with ourselves, too: there's nothing wrong with admiring a character, male or female, from a fictional work.

Casca from Berserk is an awesome female character. Complex, interesting, and someone you want to root for, even when things go horribly wrong. And they do.

The anime industry, however, has taken notice of this: they've seen the figurines, posters, and body-pillows fly off store shelves, and have recognized how passionate (and valuable) anime fans can be when it comes to their favorite anime waifus. It's a fact that character merchandising has always made up a significant portion of the industry's overall revenue, so it only makes financial sense for the anime industry to capitalize on this trend as fast and hard as they possibly can.

Therefore, I don't think it's a coincidence there's been a significant uptick in the amount of shows that introduce an unnecessary amount of female characters that fit a a variety of different archetypes of waifu, such as:

  • the quiet, shy waifu
  • the fiery, short-tempered waifu
  • the childhood friend waifu
  • the friendly, outgoing waifu
  • the mysterious, possibly psycho-killer waifu
  • the innocent, yet finds themselves in compromising situations, waifu

It's also no coincidence that these female characters usually satisfy most of the romantic preferences of your average heterosexual male viewer. Any preference or "kink" that a male viewer has will probably be fulfilled by one of the waifus on display. And when that male viewer finds a waifu that pushes all of his buttons, he'll be more emotionally invested into that character, leading him to spend more money on character-based merchandise. He may not even realize that this is all happening. It's exploitative, sexist, and gross, but it's genius.

Re: Zero, everyone. The waifu gang is all here. Pick a side, fight to death, and more importantly, buy as many figurines and body pillows as you can!

One thing that's important to note is that the anime industry's "character-based merchandising" includes both physical AND digital sales. Physical sales cover the obvious revenue streams, such as $100+ figurines of your favorite waifus, posters, expensive blu-rays, and explicit body-pillows. This has been the anime industry's bread-and-butter for decades.

Perhaps more insidious is what's covered by the "digital" part of character-based merchandising: Gacha Games. For those unaware of what gacha games are, they're like "loot boxes", but instead of getting guns, skins, or abilities, you get anime characters. More to-the-point, you get anime waifus.

Players spend real money to gamble—yes, it's gambling, since there's a very high chance that the player will not get what they wanted—on a chance to score their favorite waifus. Since each dollar spent on each gambling attempt is almost pure profit, this monetization technique is very lucrative, and has cropped up in many japanese anime tie-in mobile games. The Anime Industry's 2019 report claims that, because gacha games have exploded in popularity, the revenue from these games may overtake physical merchandising revenue in the near future.

The main takeaway is that, if these gacha games are exploitative enough, and they're tied to a popular-enough anime franchise with popular waifus, these games can make absurd amounts of money. Fate/Grand Order, for example, has made over $4,000,000,000 to date.

A screenshot of a mobile game based off of the "Fate" anime series, in which you can pay real money for a CHANCE to acquire a digital character. Marvel at how the developers made this interface as bewildering as possible.

In other words, there are insane dollar amounts on the line for these anime studios when they monetize their female characters. This leads to intense pressure to cram as many lewd waifus into mainstream anime shows as possible. Honestly, from a purely-financial standpoint, anime studios would be foolish not to.

But unfortunately, I don't think these anime studios realize (or care) that there are negative consequences to stuffing your anime with tons of fanservice-y, bland waifus where they don't belong.

Before you call me a stick in the mud, let me preempt you by saying that there's nothing wrong with escapism. If you want to immerse yourself in a fiction about a bunch of exotic women (or men, if you prefer), then that's fine! If the point of the work is romance, comedy, titillation, or any combination of those three, then I don't see anything wrong with indulgence. I'm not a puritan, and I'm definitely not going to cast the first stone.

But consider the following scenario: I'm sitting down to watch a popular anime that everyone has told me is "amazing" and a "must-watch" for its "mature, gripping" story (try to guess which one). I'm intrigued for the first few episodes, and was willing to give the whole series a watch with my fiance.

Things took a turn for the worse, however, by episode three. By that point, I've been introduced to about 5 or 6 different female characters. Each female squarely fits into a boring, one-note archetype, their outfits are distractingly revealing, and the camera lingers on their bodies for a little too long. By episode 7 or so, there's a scene where the main character lies on a female's lap and he looks up at her. The camera grants us his perspective, and we simply get a huge close up of the underside of her clothed breasts for a good 10 seconds while they converse. It wasn't funny or erotic, since the tone of the scene wasn't humorous or sexy. It was simply jarring and out of place, as if the writers had forgotten what they were supposed to be writing about (or simply didn't care: they had waifu merchandise to sell!)

At that point, I just had to turn it off and move onto to something else that respected me as a freaking adult, rather than a wallet with a libido. And make no mistake: there are many shows that bill themselves as "serious" works of fiction that fall into this trap of manipulating their viewers into buying merchanidise using pretty waifus, often at the detriment of the show's quality, so I'm not going to list them all. I'm sure you can come up with several off the top of your head.

To be clear: it's not fanservice that I have an issue with. Rather, I specifically take issue with waifu-bating because because it often serves no narrative purpose. In fact, its the drastic tonal dissonance between the waifu baiting and the "mature" storylines of these anime shows that makes its inclusion look utterly foolish and amateurish when compared to other entertainment mediums. Does anyone honestly think that an a "hot springs episode" is an appropriate narrative tension reliever for a show that's supposed to be for mature adults? What about the closely-related, and equally-ridiculous beach episode? What about a christmas episode where they put all of the waifus into revealing, low-cut christmas outfits?

The answer to those questions, obviously, is no. If your anime show is aiming for some semblance of maturity, there are more appropriate ways to take a break from the action than to shove your waifus' half-naked bodies in your viewers' faces. Hell, if it's done once or twice for laughs, then a show could probably get away with it. But if it's done constantly and consistently, as it's done in lots of mainstream anime, then it's to lure you into spending money on waifus by using sexual appeal as the carrot-on-a-stick.

It's very dissappointing to see mainstream anime waste its precious 24 minutes on waifu bait when it could be spent on literally anything else that enhances the viewers' understanding of the characters or the world that they inhabit. Instead, in most shows that waifu-bait, we get close-ups of breasts. And no, don't try to argue with me that waifu-baiting qualifies as character-building. Anime studios want you to think that they're doing this when they waifu-bait, but c'mon, dear reader, you're smarter than that.

Therefore, if you find yourself watching a show where the main character finds themselves surrounded by a bunch of women who fit different, specific stereotypes, and the genre isn't a romantic comedy or harem-type show, do yourself a favor and avoid it. It exists to sell merchandise, and there's probably anime out there with much better stories to tell.

Red Flag #2: The Constant Need to Explain Character Motivations

This problem is not necessarily unique to anime, but for some reason, I've found that it hits anime the hardest.

How many times have you heard some variation of the following phrase uttered by either a main character or secondary character in an anime?

  • "I've finally figured out that my life path is..."
  • "...and that is what I believe!"
  • "...and this is why I fight! And I'll never stop until I...

The list could go on. Anime characters seem to never stop chirping about their life path, or about how they don't have one, or about how they've discovered one, or about how they'll never waver from it. It just never stops.

Most mainstream Shonen anime are particularly awful about constantly explaining their characters' motivations every three seconds. From here

This critique is indicative of a major problem in the way that anime tells its stories, in that it commits one of the deadly sins of storytelling: show, don't tell.

I could write an entirely separate post on the narrative benefits of showing, rather than telling, but the short summary is:

  • Showing allows the viewer to build a mental model of the character in their head on their own. It makes the character more believable to the viewer, and increases their immersion.
  • Telling requires the viewer to suspend their disbelief. The viewer simply has to accept the words that the character is saying at face value (i.e. "my life path is.."), even if the viewer doesn't have the necessary evidence to believe those words.

When you tell, and don't show, characters ring hollow. There's no weight behind their proclamations of duty, or their lifelong passions. You just kinda have to nod your head and accept it. And when this happens, your suspension of disbelief snaps. The characters on the screen are no longer real human beings with goals, motivations, feelings, and opinions. Instead, they become shapes, colors, and lines, and you can practically see the voice actors in the booth, reading their lines from their scripts.

My mental image of the the main characters from "I Want To Eat Your Pancreas". An absolutely awful anime movie that explains its characters' motivations every 5 seconds, including a vomit-inducing 5-minute monologue at the film's conclusion

But there's a reason why anime studios tell instead of show, and I don't think it's because anime writers are simpletons that can't grasp this basic rule. Contrary to what people say on the internet, I also don't think it's a difference in the way that eastern cultures tell stories, since there are countless examples of masterfully produced anime that show instead of tell: Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Berserk, etc.

Instead, I think the answer is simple: anime studios tell instead of show because it's easier and cheaper to tell, rather than show. Why bother animating an episode showing why a main character has difficulty trusting others? Instead, you can just dedicate 90 seconds to a flashback scene of still-frames, and have the character tell the audience why they have trust issues while sad music plays in the background. How emotional! Now, the character's trust issues make sense!

This is compounded by the fact that anime studios want their show to reach the largest demographic possible: if their characters motivations are too hard to understand, then their show may not be popular with younger adults or teenagers. Therefore, to avoid artificially limiting their audience, these anime studios dumb down their characters and narratives as much as possible.

Showing is obviously harder to do, as it requires more time and more skill. It needs to be made clear to the viewers what's trying to be said without being obnoxiously overt about it. And more importantly, the consequences getting it wrong are dire: if viewers happen to miss what you're trying to show, they might react to major character plot points with statements like, "that seemed out-of-character for her", or "wow, I wouldn't have expected him to do that".

Therefore, studios would rather not spend the time or money in showing a character's motivations, especially when there's a possibility for screwing it up and leaving the viewers confused. They'd rather opt for the easy route and simply explain why a character does the things that they do. While this accomplishes the objective of informing the viewers what they need to know about the character, it does so in a suboptimal way, and the quality of the anime suffers.

This is unfortunate because, when done well, "showing" instead of "telling" makes for incredibly interesting and, most importantly, believable characters.

Spike from Cowboy Bebop tells us that he's "just a simple bounty hunter", but the anime shows us that that's far from true. He's complex, troubled, and most importantly, human.

In that respect, it's incredibly frustrating to see the anime industry consistently missing the mark when it comes to this crucial, fundamental rule of storytelling, especially since some of our favorite characters of the past few decades were born out of creators showing instead of telling. Showing is obviously a formula for success, so it's sad to see studios taking the easy way out.

Therefore, if an anime's characters are constantly telling you how they feel and what they're motivations are, instead of actually showing you through their behaviors, then I'd avoid it. It's characters are likely going to be bland, one-note, script-reading drones.

Red Flag #3: Reluctance to Commit to Major Character Decisions

There's nothing worse than watching an anime, witnessing a major plot event occur, such as the death of a character, and then tuning into the next episode only to find that most of the anime's narrative dynamics haven't changed.

Let me explain through an example: I sat down to watch an anime movie with my fiance, in which the movie ties in with an existing, currently-airing anime (not naming the anime for spoiler reasons). At the near-end of the movie, the main character sacrifices their powers to save the world. The main characters powers are central to the main plot of the show, and upon realizing this, I thought to myself, "man, that is ballsy. That is going to have huge ramifications on the anime." I don't watch the anime in question, but I was legitimately intrigued at this creative decision.

But to my disappointment, at the very end of the movie, he gets his powers back, and the rest of his crew forgets everything that happens—they literally get amnesia—which ties a neat little self-isolating bow around the events of the movie. It ensures that the anime remains undisturbed by the dramatic events of the movie. As the credits rolled, I heaved a heavy sigh, and started looking up other anime to watch.

Not the anime in question, but remember when Death Note had the confidence to pull off killing L, a beloved main character? And then cowardly backtracked on that decision by replacing L with two inferior L's?

Here's the thing about storytelling: there are many elements working together to make a story compelling: the setting, the plot, the pacing, the delivery, and more. If it's a visual medium, this includes designs, animation, and sound, and countless other small details that go into captivating us as an audience.

Out of all the elements of a story, however, I would argue that its single most important element is its characters. Here's an anecdotal argument as to why this is the case: think back to your favorite movie or anime. What do you remember most? I would bet on your answer being its characters.

For scientific proof, here are my theories as to why characters are the most important elements of a story:

  1. As human beings, we are hardwired to care about other humans in real life, and it's a wonderful thing, and it's a necessity for the survival of our species. This biological fact, however, has an unintended consequence: we also care about fictional humans in fictional stories. Humans simply love getting to know, and getting immersed in, the lives of fictional human characters.
  2. As audience members of the story, we closely track objects of the story that we are most familiar with, and the objects that we can most easily project ourselves onto. Therefore, we notice and retain the most information about a story's humans (or creatures personified as human), rather than its setting, it's scenery, it's inorganic lifeforms, etc.

Therefore, because characters are so important to a story, most stories' climaxes involve major events that involve one or more of the main characters. This could be a harrowing confrontation between two rivals, a shocking sacrifice of a beloved partner, the death of a family member, or the departure of a kind-hearted but wayward son. Think of your favorite movie or anime, and I can guarantee that the climax of the story involves an event like this.

Regardless of the specifics of the event, major character climaxes like these are vital to effective storytelling because art should imitate life. Most of us know from first-hand experience that loss, sacrifice, and heartbreak are very real parts of human existence, and as audience members, we expect characters in a story to go through similar experiences. While most of us engage in anime (and story-telling as a whole) for escapism, we also want to experience real human emotions and feel some kind of universal human connection with the characters on screen.

By having its characters go through pain and suffering, stories allow the audience to experience these kinds of profound emotions. This is also why we, as viewers, get so worked up when our favorite characters go through hardships. It's almost as if we're vicariously feeling what they're feeling.

Most of us also understand that, after traumatic events like these, life won't simply continue the way that it used to. Things will change. As humans, our existence requires us to continuously adapt after experiencing loss, sacrifice, and paint. Fortunately, this is also what makes humans amazing and strong, and this is why we get so invested in seeing fictional characters bounce back on their feet after a crippling loss.

But with that said, it's extremely important that after these moments of hardships, loss, and sacrifice, the audience's emotional investments are respected. There's nothing more disrespectful that an anime can do than committing to a major character event (i.e. killing a main character), and then carrying on in later episodes as if nothing happened. This is disrespectful because it flies in the face of the real emotions that we felt in the previous episodes, and it betrays one of the fundamental tenants of human existence: we all go through hardships, and we adapt. We don't come out exactly as we did before, but we adapt as best we can.

And yet, many anime do exactly this. They spit in the face of their viewers, cheapening their emotional investment into the characters and the narrative of the story, by doing one of two things:

  1. Undoing the event in a later episode: this could include resurrecting the character, having them "return" from their leave of absence, having them miraculously regain their powers (as in the movie I mentioned at the start of this section).

  2. Substituting the loss or sacrifice with something else: this could include adding a new character when a previous one dies (i.e. Mello and Near to replace L, Tracey replacing Brock in Pokemon, etc), or giving the main character a similar-but-different power that leaves the main narrative unchanged.

Many shows fall into the traps listed above: they figuratively or literally kill a beloved character, and fearing backlash from the fans (or simply trying to garner interest or goodwill from the fans), they either backtrack their decision entirely, or they try to replace them with a similar-but-different character.

So, why do anime shows keep making this mistake? Truthfully, this critique is not exclusive to anime. Western TV shows are also infamously known for bringing characters "back from the dead" for shock value and cheap emotional thrills. But for anime, there's a shallower, more pernicious reason that drives the industry: character-based merchandising.

As if you didn't know by now, these decisions are underpinned by pressures to make money. Making impactful, powerful narrative decisions like killing a main character directly conflicts with anime studios' ability to make money because, again, much of their money is derived from character-based merchandising.

I've already talked about how much of an influence character-based merchandising has on the anime industry in the "Waifu Baiting" section above, so I won't repeat myself here. If you skipped that section, go up and read it now to see how pernicious character-based merchandising can be for anime as a whole, and why you need to avoid shows that seem to push character marketing in your face.

Therefore, even an anime can muster up the courage to do something interesting with its characters, like take away their powers, or kill one of them, they are heavily pressured to replace them with a different character that fulfills a similar narrative purpose so they can continue their aggressive monetization efforts. How can I get excited for getting a scantily-clad waifu in my favorite gacha game if she's been dead since episode 11? From that cold, economic perspective, it makes sense to simply keep an anime's character dynamics stable in perpetuity.

But when money wins, the audience loses. I know this for a fact because, as an audience member, I know what it feels like when we win.

Ed leaving the Bebop was one of the most powerful scenes of Cowboy Bebop. Most importantly, she didn't return.

If you aren't familiar with Cowboy Bebop, pictured above, Ed was a secondary character, but still central to the main plot. Quirky and a little annoying, but most viewers grew to love her in the end. In an emotional, climatic near-end of the series, she ended up leaving the crew for good. Can you imagine how disgusting and cheap it would have felt if she were to return in a later episode? Or worse: replaced by a different character with a similar narrative purpose (i.e. quirky and unpredictable)?

Thankfully, the show's creators stuck to their creative vision (for Bebop, it's about appreciating the present, and finding the strength to look onwards towards the future), and resisted the urge to carelessly disrespect their viewers.

Unfortunately, shows having the confidence to stick to an artistic vision, even if it's unprofitable, is uncommon. Do a quick google search for "anime shows were the main character actually dies", and you'll notice that quite a few people have recognized how cowardly most anime shows are. I'm not arguing that anime shows need to kill characters to earn artistic cred from nevermeant.dev, but I am arguing that if a show is going to commit to a major character event, then they need to stick the landing. They can't undo it or take a mulligan. Show writers need to live with their choices, just like a real human being would.

Therefore, if you're watching a show, and you get the sense the show is too afraid make any type of commitment with any of its characters, or is quick to undo them, I'd argue that the writers don't respect your emotional investment, and would rather you spend money on its smartphone gacha game than watch their anime show.

Summary

Wow, this post ended up being a lot longer than I planned. If you managed to make it all the way through, then thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed what I had to say. If you only skimmed it, then the main takeaway from my ramblings shouldn't be that I hate all popular anime, and that I only like old, classic anime.

Instead, I simply want to see the anime industry revert back into a creative environment where people with awesome ideas are allowed to thrive. I don't want to see those kinds of people sequestered into a small cubicle, half-heatedly churning out garbage they don't care about simply to keep a roof over their heads. As consumers of anime (and if you aren't, there's tons of great anime out there, so there's no better time to get into it than now), we have the power to make this happen by supporting the kinds of anime that we want to see (i.e. artistic, passionate endeavors), while ignoring the shows that we don't (soulless, pandering cash-grabs).

Be the change that you want to see!



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