TV

Anime in 2018 saw serious cash but no surprise hits

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

What do a 24-year-old child detective, a group of seriously laid-back campers and anthropomorphic blood cells have in common? 2018, that’s what.

“Anime is a medium, not a genre” is a common refrain, and in a field as diverse as Japan’s animation industry, it can be hard to nail down trends that apply across the board.

But here’s one: The industry, as a whole, is making some serious money. The folks at the Association of Japanese Animations (AJA), just released their yearly industry analysis, which showed the total anime market topping ¥2 trillion for the first time last year. It has been growing consistently since 2009.

According to reports from AJA, less of that overall income is from traditional sales channels like home video, while more is from a relatively new phenomenon: live events. Virtually every weekend, concerts, special screenings and stage appearances are drawing crowds of fans to Akihabara and elsewhere. The most memorable event I attended this year was dedicated to the boy band-centric series “King of Prism,” and involved hundreds of fans watching a film they had ostensibly already seen dozens of times, screaming lines at the screen and waving glow sticks to the song and dance numbers in unison. Afterward, three of the film’s voice actors appeared on stage, speaking in character, as the fans howled in ecstasy. Hard for home video to top that.

On the big screen, 2018 was a reminder that, in a normal year — that is, one without any surprise hits like 2016’s “Your Name.” — established, family-friendly franchises make far more money than upstart originals. Films in the long-running “Detective Conan,” “Doraemon” and “Pokemon” franchises all did well — in fact, this year’s “Conan” film, the 22nd in the series, became the second-highest-grossing film in Japan. (“Conan” also made headlines this year for provoking the mock ire of U.S. talk show host Conan O’Brien.)

The only nonfranchise anime film that even made it into the box office top 20 was Mamoru Hosoda’s “Mirai” — even then, it brought in less than half of his 2015 hit “The Boy and the Beast.” Meanwhile, three films marketed as the next potential “Your Name.” — “Penguin Highway,” “Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms” and “I Want to Eat Your Pancreas” — failed to crack the top 50, despite the latter being based on a hit book and live-action film. Audiences, it seems, can only stomach so much pancreas.

Here’s the obligatory note that box office success does not necessarily equal quality filmmaking (and vice versa). I thought “Mirai” was a much more interesting film than “The Boy and the Beast,” and that “Penguin Highway” and “Maquia” were promising debuts for their respective first-time directors. But their failure to bring in the big yen is a reminder that hits can be elusive beasts. Speaking of elusive, “Your Name.” director Makoto Shinkai had been keeping quiet about his next project but a surprise announcement Thursday revealed details of his much-anticipated upcoming feature. “Weathering With You” is set for release on July 19, 2019.

Meanwhile, Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki assured fans this year that 77-year-old Hayao Miyazaki’s latest is well into production, but probably won’t be complete for another “three or four years.”

Over on the small screen, anime series continued to be produced in record numbers: 186, by my count. If that sounds like an unwieldy amount for one anime writer to try to cover, well, it is (send help!). More to the point, it’s an unwieldy amount for the industry itself to produce: As has been the trend in recent years, there weren’t enough animators to go around, and in 2018 studios faced delays, quality issues and outright cancellations. An animator on much-maligned series “My Sister, My Writer,” in seeming protest against the show’s unreasonable production schedule, listed his or her name in the credits as “in serious trouble.” In a separate incident in November, director Mitsuo Fukuda took to Twitter to report a production assistant at his studio had worked 59 hours in four days, and that such grueling hours weren’t particularly out of the ordinary. The anime market may be bringing in record amounts of money, but things are still tough for those on the ground.

But 2018 wasn’t all bad news on the TV front. Lusciously animated shows like “Violet Evergarden” and “Hanebado!” reaffirmed how great Japanese animators can be when given adequate time and budget. Tokusatsu superhero-themed “SSSS.Gridman” and sci-fi boxing drama “Megalobox” were charming tributes to beloved shows from the past. “Cells at Work!” portrayed cells in the human body as, well, humans, working hard to deliver oxygen and fight off viruses. The show even earned praise from real-life doctors for its accuracy and educational value.

Meanwhile, wish-fulfillment isekai (parallel universe) shows, whose sad sack protagonists are transported into fantasy worlds in which they are surrounded by buxom women, stubbornly continued to exist.

If there’s a through line to be found in 2018’s anime lineup, it might be, to quote the Talking Heads: “The girls want to be with the girls.” In “Uma Musume Pretty Derby,” racing horse girls cheer each other on with nary a horse boy in sight. In off-the-wall comedy “Asobi Asobase,” three middle schoolers avoid male classmates at all costs. In “Laid-Back Camp,” “Encouragement of Climb” and “A Place Further than the Universe,” groups of young women get together and go camping, climbing and travel all the way to Antarctica, respectively. Is this the anime industry’s take on #MeToo, or a reflection of Japan’s long-term trend of young men and women having little interest in each other? (Or is it possible that with 186 titles, you can pluck out enough examples to fit any narrative you care to spin?)

As if there weren’t enough shows on TV, 2018 was the year when Netflix began rolling out its own original material. Some of those series, like Masaaki Yuasa’s “Devilman Crybaby,” garnered some serious critical praise and more than a few fans. The firm seems to be happy with the results so far: It has just announced another block of series, including one based on the “Pacific Rim” films — which were partially inspired by anime in the first place. The streaming giant also recently revealed plans for a live-action remake of 1998 sci-fi western anime “Cowboy Bebop,” while elsewhere Adult Swim and Crunchyroll just announced an anime series based on “Blade Runner” — with “Bebop” creator Shinichiro Watanabe acting as creative producer.

Japanese and Western creators continue to dip their toes into each other’s properties (this year’s “Batman Ninja” for example), but don’t forget about China, which, says AJA, is responsible for an ever-increasing amount of overseas anime consumption. Co-productions are flowing in that direction, too — consider 2018’s triptych film “Flavors of Youth,” made by CoMix Wave Films, (of “Your Name.” fame) and China’s Haoliners Animation (two of the film’s three directors were from China).

Apropos of overseas consumption, AJA says sales outside Japan now account for almost half the total anime market. There’s little doubt we’ll continue to see more anime produced with a non-Japanese audience in mind — though studios should probably keep in mind that for many fans, anime’s Japaneseness is the whole point.

The top five anime releases of 2018

‘Liz and the Blue Bird’ (‘Rizu to Aoi Tori’)
Naoko Yamada’s first film since 2016’s hit “A Silent Voice,” “Liz and the Blue Bird” is a quiet film about friendship and loss. Set in the world of anime series “Sound! Euphonium,” but enjoyable on its own, it traces best friends Mizore and Nozomi, both members of their high school’s brass band, as they navigate the turbulent ups and downs of adolescence. We learn much of what the film’s characters are feeling through movements rather than words.

‘After the Rain’ (‘Koi wa Ame Agari no Yo Ni’)
“After the Rain,” directed by Ayumu Watanabe, takes what initially seems like pure male fantasy — an attractive young woman falling for the divorced, middle-aged manager of a family restaurant — and presents it with subtlety and humor. The young woman is Akira Tachibana, a high school track star whose tendon injury leads her to leave her team, and as the series progresses, we get the sense that her crush on manager Masami Kondo is less about him than her need to fill the void in her life.

‘Gurazeni: Money Pitch’ (‘Gurazeni’)
Most sports anime is all about youthful passion, hard training and giving it all for the team. Ayumu Watanabe’s “Gurazeni,” on the other hand, digs into the more prosaic aspects of baseball, including injuries, off-season trades and salary negotiations. Centered around Natsunosuke Bonda, a middle relief pitcher for a team based on Tokyo’s Yakult Swallows, “Gurazeni” won’t win awards for animation, but its take on the subject matter makes it worth a watch even for non-baseball fans.

‘Devilman Crybaby’
Of the many original anime series Netflix debuted this year, “Devilman Crybaby” was by far the best. The work of madman auteur Masaaki Yuasa, who was honored at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, “Crybaby” is a modern retelling of Go Nagai’s classic “Devilman,” the story of a young man with the powers of a demon. Yuasa updated the 1970s original to include hip-hop, Twitter and lots of not-safe-for-TV sex and violence, but retained the original’s antiwar message and ending that may make you cry like a baby.

‘A Place Further than the Universe’ (‘Sora Yorimo Toi Basho’)
In Atsuko Ishizuka’s “A Place Further than the Universe,” four high school girls make it their mission to visit Antarctica — but as many travel stories go, it’s ultimately more about the journey than the destination. Each of the four heroines are headed to the same place, but with very different sets of motivations, and watching the well-rounded and complex characters bond takes us to a place further than most anime.

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