I have been watching anime for many, many years. And over the course of those many years, I’ve recognised that anime is pretty much like any other form of popular entertainment: the true gems are few and far between. That doesn’t mean that the rest of the field is occupied by dross; on the contrary, one of the things that has kept me engaged with anime for so long is the fact that the also-ran stuff is also pretty good. Most of it. Most of the time. Sure, it’s also pretty forgettable, inasmuch as it doesn’t make the kind of impact on my life that the first viewing of Cowboy Bebop or Akira or Sound! Euphonium or Haikyu! did – but, nonetheless, there was still some excellent stuff in there. There was a generality to the quality that kept me engaged and kept alive the flames of my love for anime.
Alas, that’s no longer the case. And remember – I’m a long-distance anime lover. I have been watching – and loving – this stuff for years. But this year, the thrill seems to have gone. The amount of stuff I have been watching has declined sharply until I am virtually watching nothing at all.
So what have I been/am I watching? Well, right now, I am watching the second season of Uzaki-chan Wants To Hang Out and just enjoying the comedic awkwardness of these two romantic incompetents. I have more recently finished watching Exception and Summer Time Rendering (reviews pending). And before that, I watched the second seasons of Science Fell In Love So I Tried To Prove It and Komi Can’t Communicate. Oh, yeah, and I also watched The Legend of Vox Machina. But aside from that – well, not much really.
I will say right now I am looking forward to the second series of Arcane: League of Legends, Blue Period, and Kotaro Lives Alone – if they get made, that is. Also, certain features Crunchyroll is promising to make available this December – assuming they’re available in Australia. But aside from these, there is nothing currently new or on the horizon (so far as I know) that in any way grabs my interest (assuming some other Cyberpunk series isn’t made) – and, to be perfectly frank with you all, I am thoroughly bored by the prospect of it all.
Why should this be? Afterall, I have been bored with individual anime series in the past without that affecting my love of anime as a whole. So what gives now? There are a few reasons, I think, and I’ll try and spell them out for you as neatly and as logically as I can.
1. Been There, Done That
I am well aware of the fact that every genre and sub-genre has its character tropes and plot arcs that make inevitable the fact that a certain amount of similarity – even sameness – will occur across different shows. And I realise that anime drawing from source material – such as manga and illustrated novels – from within the same genre will thus necessarily replicate those tropes and story arcs and hence the similarities/sameness that already exist within the relevant source genre. Trust me – you don’t watch anime for as long as I have without realising that, in many cases, you are going to get the same story served up in different variations across a whole lot of productions.
However – what I used to appreciate was the fact that, even given these constraints, the makers of anime used to somehow produce variations on a theme that might explore familiar territory, but which did so in a way that nuanced the familiar and offered the audience a different perspective – possibly a different view altogether. Liz and the Bluebird did this brilliantly, taking two minor characters from the Sound! Euphonium series and telling their stories with empathy and grace. Likewise Clannad, which produced an “alternate story” at the end of each series – and which also produced a feature film (by a different studio) reinterpreting the series’ story from the point-of-view of a different character.
Or look at The Time of Eve and Plastic Memories, both of which explored territory made very familiar by Bladerunner, but which did so from very different perspectives and within the context of very different social realities. In one sense, both of these series deal with similar issues to the Bladerunner franchise – both live-action and animated – but the twists they provide enable us to examine these issues – social inequality, prejudice, mortality and exploitation – from very different perspectives. This is not to say they are “better” or “worse” than the Bladerunner franchise – just different. And that difference…well, it makes all the difference.
But lately it just seems like the producers aren’t even trying any more. I don’t know if that’s because their source material is lacking in quality, or if the “original” ideas behind their OVAs aren’t that original to begin with. Last year, however, I noticed that my list of “I dropped this because I got bored with it” anime grew from a mere handful to a multitude. And this year – well, this year, as I say, I’ve hardly watched anything at all. And it seems to me that a good reason behind this growing ennui is that the anime across all genres are, well, starting to look and feel the same.
Take Sabikui Bisco, for example. Look, I know it’s based on a series of illustrated novels that date back to 2018 and after, but, honestly – anyone who has already seen Desert Punk or Casshern Sins has already seen this series. Which may not necessarily be the fault of the anime producers – but, hey, they did choose to adapt this series. And, sure, Sabikui Bisco may lack the philosophizing of Casshern Sins or the gratuitous lechery of Desert Punk, but really: a desertified post-apocalyptic Japan where people literally rust to death? Hmm, where have I heard that before? Just like Mad Max got Hollywood started on that whole leather-wearing BDSM post-apocalyptic fetish aesthetic (hell, it even appeared in Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road, for crying out loud – though, oddly, not in the film adaption), so Sabikui Bisco just reran what others had already done before (and, no – the mushroom didn’t make it different!).
So maybe this is the problem: maybe I’ve been watching anime for too long. Maybe it’s gotten to the point where I’ve seen all the tropes played out in all the ways that matter – and there just aren’t any more original perspectives any more. Which is, I admit, a somewhat depressing thought: I’ve reached my anime watcher’s use-by date.
Or maybe the current crop of anime are just kinda shit.
2. Bored With The Kids
Look: I understand that anime, drawing its source material from products – manga and illustrated novels mainly – that target a younger audience means that it will inevitably be populated by characters who are kids or teens or young adults. Even when those source material and the anime they spawn place said young ‘uns in highly unlikely roles – say, leading a revolution against an evil empire, or exposing political/business corruption – I get that this is just a pop culture artifact accommodating its audience.
I also understand that there’s a cultural imperative at play, one that’s possibly unique to Japan, the spiritual source and home of all things anime. Japan’s pervasive work culture envelops – some say consumes – the adult population, in effect subsuming their identity as individuals within the corporate identity and its prerogatives. That means that, as an adult in Japan, in a very real way you effectively cease to exist. So – as I once explained to a friend who asked me why there are so many kids/teens in anime – this means that anime becomes an expression of freedom, of individuality within the context of a society that values conformity. And since kids and teens are virtually the only people in Japan who are/are allowed to be free and individual (at least, relative to the adults in Japan), it follows that they feature heavily as the main characters in anime of all genres.
And, at its best, this is frankly a good thing, precisely because it allows for an exploration of the tension between individual aspiration and the demands of societal conformity. In Adachi and Shimamura it lurked in the background: the fact that their student lives were finite, beyond which beckoned the adult world of university and work – and, thus, the probable rupturing of their still-emerging relationship. This added a piquant dose of bitter-sweetness to an already superior coming-of-age tale. Likewise Tsuki ga kirei, Your Lie In April, Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, and Given (and, while we’re about it, I Want To Eat Your Pancreas, 5 Centimeters Per Second and A Silent Voice). All speak powerfully of the fact that we form associations and imagine the future in a contextual reality that is fluid and profoundly uncertain – fate and circumstance are no respecter of our intentions.
Moreover – and again at its best – this pervasive roster of young characters also enables exploration of and discussion about some of the less savory aspects of Japanese – and global – culture and society, especially when it comes the way adults deal with adolescents and children. Welcome To The NHK, GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka, Higehiro: After Being Rejected I Shaved And Took In A High School Runaway, Perfect Blue and Scum’s Wish are all prime examples. All of these tackle important subjects; all of these make for uncomfortable viewing; and none of them sugar-coat the implications arising from the questions they ask. The presence of teens and children in all these examples isn’t just a nod to the audience but also a necessary ingredient to the story-telling as it unfolds.
But when I look around at the current crop of anime offerings, what do I find? Kids with psychic powers; kids who are essentially Harry Potter simulacra (though admittedly far less tedious); kids getting transported to fantasy/online worlds; kids who are somehow genius political leaders or warriors or sporting heroes. Urgh. Aside from the been-there-done-that element, the suspension of disbelief required to take any of these seriously frankly requires too much. He fell asleep while playing an online game and woke up in the fantasy world of said game? Gimme a break! At least Sword Art Online – which I loved; although don’t get me started on the Alicization arc, which ruined everything! – involved “transportation” through the manipulation of technology, a much more plausible scenario. In other words, the suspension of disbelief is only possible when the operating scenario is sufficiently believable to allow the required suspension to take place.
And okay – I understand that not every anime involving kids or teens or YAs has to be a heart-string pulling coming-of-age tale, or an in-depth exploration of some weighty subject. I get it. Some stuff is just throw-away entertainment. It’s not meant to engage or inform. Not a problem. Seriously. I’ve watched plenty of that stuff when I got a little weary of more worthy efforts and enjoyed myself immensely in the process. Had a laugh. Swung a sword. Lusted after a hot elf-princess. No harm done. But, you know – ultimately I like entertainment that doesn’t also insult my intelligence. And I don’t think the two are incompatible. I just don’t see much evidence of the principle being put into effect.
So before you start thinking I’m a grumpy old man who has lost his sense of humour, let me tell you: I qualified for the title “grumpy old man” decades ago; and my sense of humour is vast and dark and cosmic in scope. It’s just that I would just love to see some anime that involves adults who are central characters; or, at the least, not mere adjuncts to their kids’ adventuring. And it doesn’t have to all be “serious” stuff, either. Something like Joker Game or Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju or Undone or Miss Hokusai or The Great Passage or Wotakoi: Love Is Hard For Otaku.
It’s not too much to ask, is it?
3. Stage of Life?
I have written elsewhere why I watch – and love – anime, and the reasons set out in that post still apply. All the elements that first made me fall in love with anime, and which sustained my engagement with it – from its relatability to my life-circumstances all the way through to its writing and artistry – are still very much front and centre for me when it comes to anime. It’s just that the passage of time has worked its changes upon me, and I am beginning to suspect other criteria are now starting to assert themselves.
In other words, maybe I’ve reached a stage in life where the things anime used to do for me – or speak to me – have changed or are translating into something else. Earlier in this post, I speculated that perhaps I have been watching anime for too long and have reached my anime watcher’s use-by date. An alternate to that theory might be that, as I have changed and grown and evolved over time, perhaps my perspectives have shifted – and perhaps anime no longer speaks to my changed point of view.
Let me illustrate what I mean by reference to a similar experience I’ve had with a different medium. Along with a love for anime, I am a voracious reader. From childhood, I have loved immersing myself in books, whether fiction or non-fiction: novels, history, poetry, biographies, politics, classics – you name it, I read it. And one of my absolute favourite authors was the contemporary Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami. I consumed his stuff – novels, short stories, essays and non-fiction – with unrelenting enthusiasm, seeing within his words an engaging reflection of my own sense of the strangeness of the world, of the unreality of the real, and of my own status as someone who essentially doesn’t belong here. In Murakami’s magical realism I found a sounding board against which I could speak and sound my own truths as a human being.
And then, suddenly and without warning, it all seemed to change. First with his most recent novel; and then with a subsequent collection of short stories. I found both to be incredibly disappointing. Neither spoke to me with the same relevance and power as previous works; neither seemed particularly insightful or meaningful. Indeed, they both seemed astonishingly dull, neither saying anything new nor exploring old ground with a new perspective. “Murakami lite” I recall thinking at the time: possessing the semblance of Murakami’s works without any of the substance.
Now, some possibilities present themselves to explain this reaction. Either Murakami’s powers as a writer have declined (as, indeed, some of his disillusioned critics have suggested); or he was never really that much good and I have only just awoken to the fact (which doesn’t say much for my powers of perception!); or Murakami hasn’t changed but I have, and the existential space I now occupy means his writing no longer appeals to me the way it once did.
Of the three options presented above, the third strikes me as the most likely. Not because I think that perhaps Murakami as a writer hasn’t changed; rather, it’s because I know I have. The person who first encountered and fell in love with Murakami’s writing is still there in some respects – but they now exist in a modified form. New experiences, new reflections, new outlooks and priorities. They haven’t necessarily replaced all the aspects of the old me so much s overlaid and reconfigured them. And what it was about Murakami’s writing that spoke to the me I was then may now not speak (or speak as much) to the me as I am now.
Of course, that leaves open the option that as I continue to age and grow and modify, the me I am in the future will be a me to whom Murakami’s writing once more speaks with authority and authenticity. Not in the same way or for the same reasons as it once did; but simply because the process of change and development has created new spaces within me, spaces into which Murakami’s writing can legitimately move. Of course, the opposite is also true: the future me may be a me whose distance from Murakami is greater than ever. That’s the way it is with change: there’s always more than one possibility.
And I think a similar thing has happened with myself and anime. Those things within me to which anime in all its tropes and forms and genres once spoke no longer speak – or speak less authoritatively. The accretions of experience and reflection that have added themselves to my inner reality as a human being have produced, not a new person, but a differentiated person from the individual reality I once was. And that differentiated reality no longer hears anime’s voice in the same way or with the same ears as it once did.
Of course, that might change in future. Or it might not. Which is to say, I might find space within myself again at some point in which anime speaks to me in new and different ways. Or we might drift further apart. Who knows? All I know is that right now things have changed; and along with those changes has come a change in my reaction to anime itself.
4. Platform Blues
In some respects, this final point is a minor matter; but in other ways, it represents a kind of coup de grace, a crystalisation and concentration of all the points mentioned above. It helped nudged my boredom from a background theoretical possibility into a front-and-centre concrete reality.
Anyone who has been watching anime as long as I have will remember that it was once the case (in Australia, at least) that anime was usually only available in one of two relatively rare forms: occasional showings on late-night TV; or in cinema release (the latter usually not heavily advertised even when it did occur). As times changed and technology developed, first video, then DVD/BlueRay, and finally cable TV all did their bit to make accessibility that much more possible.
The big kicker, however, has been the Internet and online streaming services. Of course, these days everyone it seems has an anime catalogue (yes, I’m looking at you Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+)…but originally, it was through specialty services dedicated to anime streaming. And my streaming service of choice was AnimeLab.
Beginning life as the streaming platform for Madman Anime (which held a good chunk of the anime licenses in Australia and New Zealand), AnimeLab was a revelation when Yours Truly stumbled across it. There, in one place, neatly categorised by both genre and release date and oh, so easily searchable, was pretty much every anime series and feature I could ever want. Old favourites, long not seen, were re-visited; new gems were discovered. It was bliss. Naturally, I was aware that other services like Crunchyroll and Funimation existed; but why fork out more moolah on those when I had practically everything I wanted on AnimeLab?
The reality, however, is that the corporate world is no less subject to change than the rest of that reality; and with that truism came the inevitable change in AnimeLab’s ownership. And with that change came that other, inevitable reality: consolidation. Yep, it was announced that AnimeLab would be folded into Funimation, and my AL account ported over to a new Funimation account.
With a sigh of resignation I went along for the ride. But I also decided to check out Crunchyroll and eventually took out a subscription there, too. And, of course, no sooner had I done that than it was announced that Crunchyroll and Funimation would be merging, too! 🙄
For the time being, however, the two remain separate platforms – and, frankly, the thing I have noticed about both is that they are hugely less user friendly than AnimeLab. At least, I find them less user-friendly. Funimation is the worse in my experience; though Crunchyroll has its issues, too. And while I accept that part of my angst might be fuelled by sentimental recollections, I actually do think there are real issues with both platforms that make my experience of anime less pleasurable than it used to be. And that’s kind of been the straw that’s broken the camel’s back; or, to mix my metaphors, the nudge that has made me stumble through the doorway leading from mere inconvenience to actual alienation.
As I said, it’s a minor point; maybe even petty. But it’s been enough. Enough for me, at least, to say: enough!
5. The Future?
Should I be depressed about this? Yes and no. Yes, because I have watched and loved anime for so long now that I can scarce imagine that anything else will take it’s place. Which, of course, leaves a big hole. No, because I frankly doubt that I’ll stop watching anime altogether; I suspect I’ll just be a lot more selective and a lot more prepared to drop features and series than I used to be. Perhaps I’m becoming more intolerant and judgemental as I age. Or perhaps I’m just not prepared to accept second-best anymore. Or perhaps it just doesn’t matter as much as it once did.
And, as noted above, I still have a couple of reviews pending, so I am not going to stop posting about anime altogether, either. It’s just that I won’t be posting as often as previously for the simple reason that anime will no longer be as central to my life as it once was.
So this is a kind-of farewell. And kind of not. I’ll still walk in this space from time to time and will be happy to catch up with you then if you’re prepared to wait for me. If not, that’s cool; I understand. It’s been great sharing the ride with you thus far, and I wish you good hunting for the future. And all those other anime blogs I read and follow will still attract my attention, even if I don’t read/comment as much as I used to. My relationship with anime might have changed, but not the value I find from reading your work.
So then – deep breath. Whatever else is out there for me now awaits.
© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2022. All rights reserved.