Film | 2010S: DECADE IN REVIEW

Japan saw a generational and international shift for anime in the 2010s

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

As the decade kicked off, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the anime box office was Hayao Miyazaki. Since the 1990s, every film by the director had been a surefire hit: His 2001 feature, “Spirited Away,” is still the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan. But a few years into the 2010s came a shock to the big-screen anime world: Following the release of “The Wind Rises” in 2013, Miyazaki announced his retirement, and soon thereafter his studio, Ghibli, laid off the majority of its staff, becoming little more than a clearing house for merchandising rights.

The exit of Miyazaki and Ghibli from the animation scene left a void which other studios scrambled to fill.

“Nothing else has really made as much of an impact,” says Renato Rivera Rusca, an animation producer and lecturer at Meiji University. “In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of theatrical anime coming up in general release and getting more attention. You could’ve made the same movies, but I don’t think they would have been as successful.”

Films like “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” (2017), created by Ghibli alumni, and “The Wonderland” (2019), based on the work of Sachiko Kashiwaba, a novelist Miyazaki had once considered adapting, unabashedly attempted to woo the former Ghibli audience with mixed results.

Instead, the anime films that truly captured the imaginations (and wallets) of filmgoers in the 2010s came in two flavors: those from long-running, family-friendly franchises like “Detective Conan,” “Doraemon” and “One Piece,” and those from auteur directors Mamoru Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai.

Hosoda scored hits with “Wolf Children” (2012) and “The Boy and the Beast” (2015), fantasy films with a grounding in relatable, family-centric themes. Meanwhile, Shinkai had titanic success with “Your Name.” (2016) and “Weathering With You” (2019), films that resonated with audiences through their tales of teenage love and loss among breathtaking visions of apocalypse, inspired in no small part by 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Near the end of the decade, however, a Totoro-sized wrench was thrown into the post-Ghibli narrative with the news that Miyazaki had come out of retirement and was working on a new film, set to be released in the early 2020s.

This final hurrah aside, it seems clear the world of theatrical anime has moved on. Shinkai, Hosoda and a small band of other directors proved that being the next Miyazaki wasn’t about slavishly reproducing his style, but pairing high-quality animation with their own unique worldviews.

While in cinemas the number of anime titles moving to the mainstream was growing, much the opposite was happening on the small screen.

In 2009, there were 10 anime series airing on primetime Japanese television — including “Doraemon,” “Pokemon” and “Inazuma Eleven” — but, by late 2019, that number had dwindled to exactly zero.

Television anime hadn’t gone away — in fact, the number of titles grew from 195 in 2010 to an all-time high of 365 by 2016. But TV anime continued on the path it had begun walking in the late 1990s: to late-night broadcasts aimed at adult fans with either digital video recorders or insomnia. As that trend continued, small-screen anime retreated from the mainstream and became increasingly aimed at a devoted niche fanbase.

“Twenty years ago, you could’ve spoken to non-anime fans and they would’ve known what a series like ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ was, even if they hadn’t seen it,” says Rusca. “That probably wouldn’t be the case for a similar show today.”

Those late-night broadcast slots were purchased by anime producers and essentially serve as commercials for eventual home video releases, which often featured uncut and reanimated scenes. The high prices some fans were willing to pay for these uncut DVDs or Blu-rays led many shows to aim at increasingly tiny slivers of the market.

But, as the decade went on, home video sales began dropping off, with sales in 2017 just 72 percent of what they were in 2010. That caused producers to “scramble for new sources of revenue,” says Rusca.

One of the most successful new sources has been live events, says Yoshihiro Watanabe, producer at anime studio Orange Co., Ltd.

Events range from voice actor appearances and advance theatrical screenings of new episodes to musicals, concerts or cafes decked out in art from a series for a limited time.

“It’s less about fans showing their devotion to characters through purchasing items, and more about selling people on the idea of anime as a part of their lives,” says Watanabe.

However, the biggest game changer over the past decade — both monetarily and creatively — has arguably come from outside Japan. In 2010, overseas sales accounted for about 22 percent of all industry revenue. By 2017, they had climbed to nearly half.

In the United States, the largest licensor of Japanese animation, this anime influx was precipitated by the rise in internet video streaming. Instead of waiting months or even years after a series aired for an official English-language release, fans could now watch subtitled episodes at the same time as they were being aired in Japan.

Asian countries like South Korea and Taiwan were also huge licensors, and China, with its growth as a monetary superpower, became an increasingly important part of the anime market as well. It can be easier to sell some properties to these countries than to the West thanks to their cultural similarities to Japan, says Watanabe, though “there are many censorship differences, so not all shows that are shown in Japan can go to China.”

Near the end of the decade, a boost of foreign cash began to influence the content of anime productions themselves. Instead of simply licensing existing content, streaming services like Netflix and Crunchyroll began to put money directly into their own anime productions.

“These outside sources start coming in, saying, ‘Hey, we can fund a lot of things if you want.’ But, of course, those projects have to be more appealing to global audiences and not so insular,” says Rusca.

Watanabe agrees. “At our studio, we’re definitely trying to focus on more of a global theme than a theme that only works in Japan,” he says.

Parallel to this infusion of overseas capital is a rise in overseas talent, as people from around the world who grew up on anime have come to Japan to work as animators, or even start their own studios. And, Watanabe says, thanks to an increasingly digital workflow, such talents don’t necessarily even need to be in Japan.

“In the next couple of years, we’re going to see a paradigm shift,” says Rusca. “A generational change is occurring, and I think it is going to be an international shift. People are waking up to the fact that anyone around the world can make Japanese-style animation.”