Among the usual roundup of links in this week's AICN Anime installment, there are several overviews of the industry in general. The word is not good, and a lot of that is because Japan remains hidebound by old-school ways of doing business.
When I raised the possibility that moribund company policies and outsourced labor in the anime industry might be hollowing out the next generation of domestic talent, a high-ranking executive producer in Japan replied: "We're not really afraid of outsourcing, because no one can approximate original Japanese ideas, the true value of intellectual property. Low-wage labor is one thing, but it's not the same as true creativity."
In an expanding age of rampant file-swapping, downloading, digital mashups and cross-platform network flow, "originality" may be an outdated analog virtue, losing ground to sheer speed and flexibility.
The question is, flexibility to create what? The answer seems to be: anything, anything at all, as long as it fills some kind of gap. Even if it isn't very good by "professional" standards — like the flash show Kaitou Reinya:
If you want the actual future of anime, look to this show. The future is cheap flash animation done badly.
I agree. Viral videos on YouTube aren't quality, but they get seen. The people watching them aren't looking for "quality"; they're looking for something they sense is raw, unfiltered, direct from someone else — even if it's put together with the most rudimentary competence. It doesn't matter, because it has a lifetime of maybe a month, tops, and will soon be cycled out and replaced with someone else equally flash-in-the-pan.
The few things that get to the stop and stay there are getting fewer and fewer, because the system designed to bring them to people revolves entirely around making hits instead of cultivating a roster. Ken Akamatsu of Love Hina fame is also dismayed at the way such things are creating a massive gap between the few success stories and the giant scrap heap of also-rans:
"In the past, the major comic magazines had a 'multiplier effect' in which the standout titles would also in turn increase the visibility of lesser-known ones... But this effect is on the wane. In short, the chances to get to know lesser-known manga are disappearing."
But the big issue (and one left unexplored by Akamatsu) is: do fans WANT to get to know lesser-known manga in the first place?
The short answer is: not really. Most manga readers — most pop culture consumers in general — break down into a majority who pick up what's available and a minority who pick up the new stuff and evangelize about it. Communication only goes in one direction between those two parties, and it's more often than not a mere half of one direction. "We" talk, and sometimes — occasionally — "they" listen.
But the "ghettoization" of manga mentioned in the same article is just a reflection of what's happening to culture in general: when you have your TV channel, your Facebook feed, your music player's playlist — why bother with anyone else's? This is the paradox of taste: when it becomes possible for the consumer to shape his environment so that he can exclude everything that doesn't interest him, it becomes next to impossible to make discoveries. The only things that come in the door are things he's paid to experience — and soon people wonder, without ever quite realizing why, everything seems subtly the same.
And you can bet I have a very personal and intimate reason to worry like hell about these issues, when your potential audience gets all the smaller each year.