At the corner of Vermont and Franklin in Los Feliz, a formerly rough and now hipster neighborhood in Los Angeles, stands the House of Pies. It was founded in 1965, flourished as a chain for a while (its founder, Al Lapin Jr., also founded the International House of Pancakes), and then rapidly shrank. It almost went out of business but managed to hang on in its original location, and now exists as a kind of working museum piece, catering to a small group of hip kids and old-timers who appreciate it as a throwback - or merely for the sake of irony.
I have a point here, believe me.
Anime is in trouble. It may not seem that way when you have Love Live! selling 70,000 discs per volume, or Kuroko no Basuke 20,000, but it is. Anime is in trouble because, for the most part, it's no longer trying to expand its audience. Instead, it's becoming increasingly risk-averse and targeting what it believes is a sure thing - a tiny section of the Japanese public willing to pay the exorbitant cost of a Blu-ray or DVD edition of a TV anime.
“Japanese animation is in decline, It’s already peaked. After it does collapse, there will probably be a new resurgence I don’t think animation will vanish, but perhaps, there might not be the conditions that have existed up until now that have led to the creation of interesting films.”
It's not as though these guys have stopped loving anime. Anno loves it so much he founded the "Japan Animator's Project", a web-based platform for short anime films that don't fit into the commercial mold. When Romain, already facing a tough road as a French animator working in Japan, was attacked for that tweet, he defended himself: "I don't dislike cute girls. I just want to see a larger types of shows. Of course this a caricature. But I'm in this kind of mood this morning. Can somebody here draw something else than girls? Great shows...that doesn't sell. It's getting more and more difficult to make them. That's the problem."
The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem...
I admire Anno for his online project, but I think it's symptomatic of a bigger problem. Net animations, Anime Mirai, crowdsourcing - those who love anime are desperately trying to find alternative ways to stop the medium's creative decline. But they're not addressing the real problem, and a solution can only come from within the apparatus of the studio system: if creative diversity can't find a voice through mainstream television anime, the medium is surely doomed as a creative force. But if it could, we wouldn't be seeing desperation "Hail Mary passes" like Kickstarter projects to get different sorts of anime produced.
There are lots of problems in the anime industry worth talking about. As an example, the plight of animators who work 100-hour weeks for the equivalent of about $1000 a month is certainly worthy of its own article, and there are those trying to do something to help these people. But I'm here to talk about the House of Pies, and why it's killing anime.
If you want to understand the House of Pies marketing strategy, just attend Comiket. To a large extent, the folks who buy doujins are the ones who buy Blu-rays and DVDs - and it's the sales of Blu-rays and DVDs that make the difference for 90% of anime when it comes to financial success (in rare cases - like Ansatsu Kyoushitsu - a source manga is popular enough that promoting its sales is good enough). Production committees see their best bet to make a profit in trying to claim a slice of the pie.
What's the biggest wedge of pie? It's male otaku - the ones who buy light-novels and dating sim VNs. They like anime with audience-insert bland male protagonists that actively play to their romantic fantasies. They like Nisio Isin series. They like idols - and anime about idols. They like harem shows where every possible fetish is represented. They like lolimoutos, and they like objects anthropomorphized as cute girls. They're the safest bet, if you can win them over.
There's another pretty big wedge of the pie, and that's female otaku - often referred to as "Fujoshi" (literally "rotten girl"), a term that I avoid (though many of these fans refer to themselves as such). They dominate Friday and Saturday at Comiket, and they've single-handedly made sports anime profitable again with their patronage of stuff like KuroBas, Haikyuu!! and Yowamushi Pedal. If you can find the formula to appeal to this second-largest wedge of pie, you're guaranteed financial success. And if by some miracle you can find a product that appeals to both like Shingeki no Kyoujin, you've got the goose that laid the golden egg.
There are a few smaller wedges of pie out there that producers will sometimes still try and gobble up - fans of otome games or old-school shounen. But these slices are so narrow that they don't draw much attention. Once upon a time the NoitmimA block specialized in going after these smaller wedges, but (while this season is an exception) even it has largely abandoned the fight.
The problem here should be obvious if you think about it from the perspective of a fan of great desserts. Imagine once upon a time you could walk into a bakery and see a huge variety of selections - but now all see on the shelf is a pie. Maybe you like that pie and maybe you don't, but even if you like it you're going to get sick of it sooner or later. So why doesn't the guy running the bakery make a cake, or a tray of cookies, or a bread pudding? Because he's thinking to himself "Yeah, but... What if no one buys it? I know if I make a pie, there are people in the neighborhood who come back over and over, buying a slice of pie. What if I make a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and no one shows up to eat it?"
Here's the thing - if pies are popular on your block, you can probably scrape by selling nothing but pies even if every baker on the street is doing the same. But eventually, even the people who like pies are going to get sick of eating them. But if all the bakers have forgotten how to make anything else, what happens then?
There are still a few exceptional anime produced once in a while, no doubt about it. There are those out there trying to find another model that works, as suggested by Thomas Romain - people like BONES, who cater to an international anime audience (which is naturally more diverse in its tastes than the Japanese audience) with stuff like Space Dandy. And Madhouse, who use wedges of pie like Mahouka to allow them to make stuff like Death Parade occasionally. But these are rare exceptions, and they grow more rare every season and every year,
If one loves creative diversity, they can't help but appreciate NoitaiminA for airing the great seinen Boku Dake ga Inai Machi this season, or take heart that DEEN has produced the Josei Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. But times have really changed. Just take a look, if you will, at the list of anime from a single season, Spring 2007: you had challenging and groundbreaking shows across every genre and demographic, right alongside mainstream commercial fare.
The brilliantly literate Seirei no Moribito, sci-fi Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, magical girl legend Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS, supernatural fantasy Claymore, Bones' futuristic noir seinen Darker Than Black, Kyoto Animation's moe staple Lucky Star, sports stalwart Ookiku Furikabutte, Josei Victorian Romance Emma Second Act... It's a seemingly endless list, and that's not even half of it.
Is every show on that list great? By no means. Is there any shortage of cute girls? Not at all. But the sheer diversity of themes, demographics, genres and styles is staggering - completely unimaginable in today's environment. And there are a number of shows that would go on to be genuine timeless classics on that list. Even as recently as 2012 you saw a season (again, Spring) with the likes of Tsuritama, Sakamichi no Apollon, Nazo no Kanojo X, Ginga e Kickoff, Uchuu Kyoudai, Shirokuma Cafe, Sankarea, Jormungand, Fate/Zero, Eureka Seven AO, and UN-GO. How times have changed.
Is it too late to save anime as a creative force? Well, Anno Hideaki and Thomas Romain are certainly way more knowledgeable than me. But I love anime just like they do, and as long as anyone loves anime all they can do is support the series that try and make a difference and try to encourage studios like Bones to keep trying to market directly to an international audience - if there is hope I believe that path is where it lies.