A few days ago, as I was chatting idly with an Australian friend of mine on IRC, he pointed me to an interesting interview with Yamamoto Yutaka, acclaimed director of Kannagi and former member of Kyoto Animation. In the interview, he brings up several intriguing points about the anime industry and trends within the “otaku” community that he finds rather disturbing.
Mr Yamamoto is one of the foremost critics of anime. After graduating from Kyoto University with a BA in Literature (incidentally, his senior thesis was about End of Evangelion and Princess Mononoke), he entered Kyoto Animation. Some of his more notable innovations at Kyoani include both the Lucky Star and Hare Hare Yukai dances, as well as the 12th episode of Haruhi (featuring now well-known musical numbers such as God Knows…). He was fired abruptly after directing four episodes of Lucky Star for being “not good enough.” Kannagi is his first work since being fired from Kyoani.
His interview starts rather abruptly:
Interviewer: We believe that interesting works, be it anime, novels, television dramas or movies, should be presented in the same way.
Interviewer: Now that anime has become more popular, it seems people are starting to talk about it in a more conventional, normal fashion.
Yamamoto: I feel like that’s becoming harder and harder to do.
This is his first contention: anime is exclusive, unlike other forms of mass media. He goes on to give an explanation of why this is:
Anime belongs to the Otaku. The “otaku,” by definition, is extremely exclusionary. He wishes to posess everything for himself… the word itself has an exclusive feel to it. Why not “kimi”, “anata” or “omae”, but “otaku?” [As some of you probably know already, all of these aformentioned words are ways to say "you" in Japanese, with "otaku" being near-obsolete and unused.] I feel that it was because they wanted to proclaim, “I am different from everyone else.” I often say that it is the otaku himself who discrimminates against otaku.
I agree with Mr Yamamoto. In my experience, anime fans are rather snobbish. It also seems that there are different “tiers” of fandom; with those who watch dubs and Naruto often at the bottom, and members of the fansubbing community (especially those who actually speak Japanese) at the very top. This self-imposed caste system certainly does not make newcomers to the anime fandom feel welcome. In addition, since anime is viewed worldwide as a counterculture, its fans are perceived as rebels, living on the edge of mainstream culture. The anime fandom reinforces this image of “edgy-ness” and exclusivity quite well. The prevalent sentiment of exclusion is detrimental to the creation of good anime, argues Mr Yamamoto:
In order to express that “I am different from all the rest,” anime has been split into a myriad of subcategories. This contributes to the stifling of anime… as more sub-genres are created.
Agreed again. Recently, it seems that anime have fallen into a few large categories and each anime attempts to vary only just slightly. There hasn’t been a genre-shattering, industry-shaking innovation in quite a while. Each anime attempts to differentiate itself in minute ways. Instead of making an artistic statement, most directors seem more interested in pandering to a very specific niche of a fandom. For example, Strawberry Panic! and Maria-sama ga Miteru can both be lumped generically into the yuri romance genre. Yet, it is clear that the presentation of both shows are extremely different, and cater to different sorts of people. “Well yes,” one might say, “That’s to be expected. After all, were it not for these minute changes in detail, we’d be watching the same damn show over and over again.” True. However, there must be a way for anime to expand to even broader horizons, instead of working repeatedly within the same framework.
Mr Yamamoto goes on to explain that he does not believe in the existence of true “originality:”
What we percieve as originality is simply very deft plagiarism.
Yet, amazingly enough, anime condones this lack of originality. Anime appeals to its viewers often through the use of parody and other forms of non-original humor. Most anime produced last year were adaptations of existing works. This is a problem, argues Mr Yamamoto, since exclusive humor often bores people who do not understand the original reference. (Lucky Star would be an extreme example of this trend.) He goes on to cite Shinbo of Shaft as one of the prime suspects of this type of exclusive humor. Instead of striving to satisfy one particular niche repeatedly, says Yamamoto, anime directors should allow everyone to enjoy their works equally. References and homages to other anime should be inserted in a way that is both subtle and unobstructive, serving as an “Easter egg” for die-hard fans. Allowing references and parodies to become the main vehicle of humor dramatically diminishes the amount of people that are able to watch and enjoy a certain show. Mr Yamamoto claims that he has striven for this standard in Kannagi; the humor is easily understandable to everyone, yet hardcore anime fans will find little goodies left for them by the creators of the show.
The lack of originality is mainly caused by laziness and an unwillingness to taks risks, claims Mr Yamamoto. It is much more difficult to create a storyline from scratch than it is to simply adapt another work, obviously. Yet, the difference between anime and other media genres is that original works often sell very badly and aren’t very critically acclaimed. Yet, at the same time, adaptations have become a dime a piece nowadays, and often serve no real purpose than to promote the original work:
Look at Toradora!. It’s just a ploy to get the light novels to sell better. Then there’s A Certain Magical Index. Both shows serve as the “ultimate weapons” of the light novel industry. Yet, neither was as popular as Kannagi… it’s because neither original work was as popular.
(As a sidenote, this comment of his caused massive shitstorms on the Internet among fans of both shows.)
Yet he cites two prominent examples of anime that are “loose adaptations” of their respective original works: true tears and Ga-rei: Zero. The former was not very popular, even though it received a rather warm reception from critics; the latter was very popular with fans. Both examples blur the line between adaptation and original work. Therefore, the popularity of the original work should not matter when evaluating the success of these series. Mr Yamamoto concludes that “things that sell sell, and things that don’t sell don’t.” I agree. While some (genuinely horrible) series become popular by riding on the popularity of their original work (see: Index), these shows will never be as good as legitimately wonderful works of anime, original or not.
The lack of originality and the desire for exclusivity by the fandom has created a highly transparent industry. Mr Yamamoto affirms that the creators and the fans are “too close.” This is the biggest reason behind the isolation of the anime industry. The creators feel too obligated to please their fans, and the fans naturally expect the creators of anime to cater to them specifically, as opposed to society at large. This negative feedback loop simply exacerbates the problem over time, and now we have an industry that has boxed itself into a dead end.
Even now, there are only a few directors of anime that are known by name to the world at large. Hayao Miyazaki comes immediately to mind. He is known to most as an innovator, someone who shuns the moe conventions of the industry and does his own thing. Yet, Mr Yamamoto says, Miyazaki and his cronies at Ghibli are partially responsible for the mess the industry is in right now. Instead of reaching out to other directors, sharing his success with others and serving as a guiding light for the advancement of the anime industry, he has retreated into an ivory tower, shutting himself off and isolating himself from the rest of the industry. Mr Yamamoto calls Miyazaki “the biggest otaku.” Miyazaki once said that to “produce anime because you like anime is an extremely stupid thing.” “Cowardice,” says Mr Yamamoto, “because Mr Miyazaki loves anime just as much as any of us.” He hides himself behind “art,” not willing to admit to himself that he truly loves what he does. This sort of cowardice prevented him from speaking out against the rapid “moefication” of anime. Had he spoken, it may have been possible to reverse, or at least ameliorate, the growing exclusivity of the anime fandom. Ironically enough, it was Mr Miyazaki’s films that represented an early iteration of moe. (At the time, his biggest competitor in the market was Gundam, a series that is universally agreed to be anything but moe.)
Mr Yamamoto goes on to say that he critiques anime so that he can recieve contercritique. He concludes that the most important way to advance the art of anime is communication. New anime is formed through the communication of ideas, not by boxing oneself into a prefabricated set of values. He does not wish to pander to his fans, rather, he wants to create something that all viewers can understand (in his words, “be enriched by.”). He grieves the formation of a heavily exclusive and uninnovative industry, and he critiques anime as a sort of industry watchdog. He wishes that someday, anime can break free of its exclusive mentality and become something that can be readily discussed and debated by members of society from all walks of life.
As always, I’m highly interested in hearing what all of you have to say on this issue. I feel this is an important discussion to have as fans of anime; I, like Mr Yamamoto, am not too keen on belonging to a fandom where every work is simply a variation on the same theme.
An interesting aside:
At the conclusion of the interview, Mr Yamamoto was asked this question: “If you had to pick five anime titles from 2008 to represent each Power Ranger, which anime would be which Ranger?” His list:
Pink Ranger: Clannad ~After Story~
Green Ranger: Macross F
Red Ranger: Gundam 00
Orange Ranger: Code Geass R2
Yellow Ranger: Strike Witches
Addendum: This interview was originally published in Issue 2 of Kaiyu Magazine, published by Lykkelig, originally distributed starting the 18th of March, 2009. There are currently eight copies left up for sale. If you want one, please visit their website here.