It takes only two words to sum up why 2016 was always going to be a hard act to follow: “Your Name.”
To call Makoto Shinkai’s body-switching romance a hit is a little like calling Tokyo Skytree “pretty tall.” The film made up nearly half the domestic anime box office and, worldwide, became the highest-grossing anime film of all time (Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” still claims that honor on the Japan charts). Its success did not go unnoticed in Hollywood, where J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot snapped up the remake rights this September.
The year 2017 did not feature any “Your Name.”-size theatrical hits — though not for lack of imitating. Engaging in that sincerest form of flattery, films such as “Napping Princess” and “Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?” featured “Your Name.”-esque rural settings, teen romances and fantasy/sci-fi twists, and while they were modest successes they didn’t quite click like Shinkai’s smash did.
But those films were decidedly coy in their imitation compared to “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” the first film from Studio Ponoc, a studio created and staffed by former employees of Studio Ghibli, which went into hibernation after 2014’s “When Marnie Was There.” “Mary,” the story of a young girl who suddenly gains magical powers, wore its inspiration on both sleeves and, while anything but original, it successfully replicated the Ghibli look and feel, and positioned Ponoc as the natural successor to that legendary studio in the post-Miyazaki era.
That is, until the man himself had something to say about it. Studio Ghibli co-founder Miyazaki, who had retired in 2013 (some Miyazaki watchers count it as the seventh time he had done so), announced in March he was getting the band back together for one last party. Ghibli uber-producer Toshio Suzuki has described the film, titled “Kimitachi wa Do Ikiru Ka,” (“How Do You Live?”) as an “epic fantasy.” It’s expected to take three or four years to complete, by which time Miyazaki will be in his 80s — maybe making it his actual final film (for reals), whether he wants it to be or not.
Fittingly, perhaps, 2017’s sleeper hit was a film from 2016. “In This Corner of the World,” which tracks the story of a young woman in Hiroshima Prefecture in the years leading up to and during World War II, debuted in November of last year and, thanks to repeat viewers and a huge grass-roots push from fans on social media, never really went away. The film is, as of this writing, still in theaters, and an extended version has just been announced.
Though computers have been used to color and composite anime for years now, individual frames are still drawn largely by hand and then scanned in for digital manipulation. That was true even in 2017 — but an increasing number of theatrical films and TV series this year were either partially or completely animated via 3-D software. At the forefront of the 3-D CG movement is the studio Polygon Pictures, who released two feature films in 2017 — “Blame!”, an adaptation of a sci-fi manga, and “Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters,” the first-ever anime film based on the iconic beast. 3-D animation made inroads on the small screen, too, with hit titles such as “Land of the Lustrous” and “Kemono Friends,” with the former winning over a good number of CG skeptics with its stunning animation and the latter, about a group of animals transformed into cute girls, becoming one of the year’s most beloved series despite its decidedly dodgy CG, not because of it. Regardless, anime fans may end up looking back on 2017 as the year 3-D anime came into its own.
And the innovative use of computers in 2017 wasn’t limited to just 3-D. Cult favorite Masaaki Yuasa, who had not directed a full-length film since 2004, released two in short order this spring: “Night Is Short, Walk on Girl” and “Lu Over the Wall.” The secret to the director’s speed? Flash animation.
Flash may be known best in the West as the software used to cheaply animate late night, stoner-friendly cartoons, but Yuasa has mastered an innovative, artistic use of the software, which he uses to fill in the gaps between key frames, duplicate background elements, and perform other time and labor-saving tricks to create anime — all with a third of the staff of most other studios.
Anime traditionalists may have qualms about Japan’s hand-drawn animation getting a computer assist (after all, since Disney has gone all-in on 3-D, it’s almost unquestionably the world’s best), but the industry’s working conditions may demand it. It was announced this year the anime industry made record profits in 2016, but little if any of those profits trickled down to animators — according to the Japanese Animation Creators Association (JAniCA), animators in their 20s make an average of just ¥1.1 million a year. This is by no means a new problem, but 2017 saw the issue investigated by several major media organizations, including NHK, and the Labor Standards Inspection Office in Tokyo, where most anime studios are located. It has been reported that 90 percent of all young animators quit within their first three years, many flocking to better-paying gigs, including animation for smartphone games or the growing Chinese market.
Individual animators aren’t the only ones in trouble, either. Despite the industry’s record trillion-yen income in 2016, 1 in 4 animation studios are in the red. More anime is produced every season than ever before (there were about 170 series in 2017), which has led to a fracturing of the audience. This may be a boon for individual fans, who now have an incredible selection to choose from (you want a show about strains of rice anthropomorphized into cute teenage boys? You’ve got it!) but it means that on TV, it’s almost impossible to produce a series that captures the public imagination “Your Name.”-style. And with Netflix and other streaming players getting in on the game, that fracturing will only continue.
That said, Netflix’s original anime (it currently has more than 30 titles in production) may point to a possible way forward for the industry. It has been reported the streaming giant’s budgets are much higher than that of an average broadcast series, and, unlike domestic players, it has the power to simultaneously release titles in each of the 200-odd countries where it operates. Bypassing TV may also allow writers and directors, no longer constrained by multiple sponsors, to let their creative juices flow in interesting directions — that, or they may just simply be forced to create the kind of anime Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings wants to watch.