A slide shown of Knights of Sidonia the manga vs the animation.
After Miyazaki essentially retired from major film making after The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu) in 2013, there were two schools of thought:
1) The anime industry is doomed, there's too much moe and cute girls, there's no potential now that he's gone!
2) Miyazaki has been getting older and jaded, his works have been getting weaker, so the industry would be better off as others will take his place!
You might be able to lie in the middle ground where you can think there's too much moe and the industry has no future but also think as great as Miyazaki has been for anime he's also on the decline in his filmwork and how he perceives the industry. But that was the sentiment then, and it's best to pick a side.
My side was the anime industry was doomed. I do think Miyazaki has said some silly things, but at that time, the only relevance anime had with the Western audience (aside from Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, kids stuff) was with Ghibli films, and he was a major part of that. With only a few directors that were well known at the time (Mamoru Hosoda, Makoto Shinkai), and a lack of access to anime online, plus the always mistaken perception of anime, I didn't really see the medium growing unless there was more access to the product and titles that could grow an audience.
LOTS of things has changed since his retirement. Dai Sato, who you might happen to know as the scriptwriter for titles like Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, and Justin Leach, who worked on the CG animation for Ghost in the Shell Shell 2: Innocence, and also was the project leader for Kick-Heart, decided it was time to go over that change in a panel at the Japan Society.
The very first thing they established was that this was going to be 80% animation, 20% everything else.
2.5D Animation is the big new thing
Why yes, Leafa played a big role in converting 2D anime into 3D without looking bad. Well, alongside other figures.
The biggest example was animation in 2001 and animation today. Not surprisingly, there are drastic differences between CG animation then vs today. But expressing an anime like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within by Square Pictures, which was in full CG 3D and praised as being the hallmark for CG realism at the time, compared to Ajin by Polygon Pictures, which is 2.5D and looks more in line with the original manga but is a CG 3D title, shows how animation has changed. This has been experimented in a number of titles over the years (anime like Eureka Seven and Macross Zero were used as examples of covering 2D into 3D for mecha), but for a while it was a struggle, especially since turning titles into 3D costs a lot of money.
One big thing Sato said that changed how animators could animate from 2D to 3D was a figure of Leafa from Sword Art Online -- to be more specific, figurines that were created were closer to achieving the 2D to 3D conversion in a way that made the girls look cute, or "moe" as Sato said a number of times in this talk. The result of figure creation is how we ultimately got Expelled From Paradise from Toei to look the way it did: a cute girl in 3D with the right eyes. Another example was the anime Bubuki Buranki by Sanzigen. This title was a challenge in covering 2D to 3D because, in Sato's words, "you have to make the girls look cute."
A large collection of examples of the Itano Circus, in video form.
If you've never heard of "Itano Circus", Sato goes into this a lot after talking about 2.5D. Ichiro Itano is the person who worked on Macross. He's also worked on a lot of series with mechs in it. If you see a show where a large amount of missiles are shot out of a mech or a jet -- he showed clips of Space Runaway Ideon (Densetsu Kyojin Ideon) and Macross as examples -- you can credit Itano as the inspiration, because he popularized it, or at least, is a major factor in why it's used so much. Sato admits it's not done quite as well nowadays because there's only a few who can achieve that level of animation. Yasushi Muraki, who happened to work on Eureka Seven, is one who's pretty close, probably because he's a disciple of Itano.
Finally, Sato concluded that yes, Japanese animation wasn't so great, and especially so without Miyazaki. Now though, he believes there is a future, as the titles he mentioned alongside a few others―another 2D to 3D show in Knights of Sidonia (Sidonia no Kishi), Space Dandy, One Punch Man―were directed by people in their 30's. So there are young ones up and coming, and with Animator Expo, the animation can only get better.
The Future of Japanese Animation
An example of a 3D Evangelion shown at Animator Expo.
Justin Leach didn't have quite as much time as Dai Sato, but he mentioned how tioday there's more avenues to get your work out there (Kickstarter, Animator Expo), there's new studios (MAPPA, Wit) along with old ones changing a bit (BONES, Production I.G), talked about Masaaki Yuasa's Science Saru, and also cited animators that are up and coming (Natasha Allegri, Ilya Kuvshinov, Hiroyasu Ishida, Dice Tsutsumi). He even showed clips and even the shorts as well. Just like Sato, because there's now an avenue for those in other countries to help create Japanese animation, the future of animation is looking bright.
I have to say, their explanation only added more support in why the anime industry is actually heading in a better direction post Miyazaki. Mostly, it's because of this 2D to 3D conversion that has gotten companies like Netflix and Amazon to join in and bring over anime nowadays. Three years ago, this was hard to imagine. There were titles where the 2D to 3D conversation was horrifying (hi Kingdom), and a lot of people were turned off of that style. Nowadays, I don't hear too much complaints about that. Is it really because of figurines? Just a change in how animation is done? Whatever the case, it's because of this that anime has an opportunity to be more mainstream than it ever has before. Now, whether I'll be happy if every anime goes this way is definitely a question mark, as I doubt I'd support that. But if there are a few titles that can find that balance between 2D and 3D without looking awful, then the future after Miyazaki will look great after all.
The second fascinating storyline for me after the 2.5D animation explanation was the questions. Most were way too long, though they also happened to provide some telling answers.
1) For example, one question involved serious storytelling, and whether or not that art was lost and if manga is becoming too pop. The bad news is the example cited were great―Akira, Cowboy Bebop―but Sato cited Madoka Magica as an example of serious storytelling with the moe aesthetic, or if it's becoming too pop. Madoka Magica is actually pretty great, but as he didn't cite any other examples, the best direction for any serious storytelling will have to come with some cute girls.
Leach was more honest, as he cited the business side comes into play when it comes to what titles can be animated. Production I.G was one where he mentioned that they definitely take a risk on some titles where it could be a financial risk, but also work on titles where there's commercial appeal. (Ghost in The Shell: Innocence was one title he cited that failed financially.)
2) Another question asked about Hollywood adapting Japanese titles, specifically Battle Angel Alita, Akira (as James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez are directing the two respectively) and Ghost in The Shell, and what advice they would give them. Leach's advice was for them to know as much of the title and honor as much of the original as possible. Sato believes though that this creates an opportunity, that if they see the live action, they will also learn about the original show, so it's not that bad of a thing. "So in a way," Sato mentioned through a translator, "Scarlett Johansson is advertising!"
3) As soon as Sato started by saying, "there is a very good original manga for Flowers of Evil (Aku no Hana)," when asked about whether rotoscoping has more of a future in anime, I knew he was holding back in giving his honest opinion of that series, but what he said was telling anyways. After citing Ajin and Sidonia as having been worked on by one director, he talked about the trial and error where a studio tries to create and translate the original concept and how the producer can show it with the available budget. If the title is popular, then there will be a bigger budget (cited One Punch Man as an example). He mentioned that if the next piece is interesting and catches someone's eye, then maybe it'll be animated in that style. Needless to say, it didn't sound like we'd be seeing this type of technique in anime anymore. I should also mention the audience gasped when Flowers of Evil was brought up.