Post-Moe?

Squandered opportunity, staring you in the face.

Squandered opportunity, staring you in the face.

This morning, I was having  a rather pessimistic discussion with an Australian friend of mine over the future of the eroge industry. I ominously predicted that at the current rate, we could expect to see the death of eroge in about twenty years. This spilled over into a general conversation about the state of the anime industry, and the need for just about everyone to begin reconsidering what anime should be about.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a naysayer that believes anime is dead. On the contrary, as this season has shown to viewers, the industry is still very much alive. There’s no use comparing the anime of today to the “classics” of yesteryear; I don’t think that anime, as a genre, has somehow declined since the 1990s or the 1980s. Rather, ever since anime has ballooned into a multi-billion dollar industry, more and more shows are being produced each season. Critics shout and cry about the “end of anime” because there are simply more anime out there. Good anime, of course, is only a small portion of all the works produced in a given season, so it would seem natural that they are becoming “less and less” because they comprise a lesser percentage of total anime output.

In this sense, the anime industry is actually expanding. As more and more titles are produced each season, merchandise sales go up, which leads the way to more production as capital is gained, et cetera. It is also no secret that the anime scene is now an international one. Tomo Kataoka (creator of the much-beloved Narcissu) revealed to me last winter that he believed viable markets for visual novels, eroge, and more fringe products could be created in China, Korea, most of Western Europe and America. Gonzo’s fiscal records show an aggressive push towards both North and South America, as well as Australia and Europe. In short, the industry is expanding at an unprecedented rate.

Yet despite this expansion, the industry is headed for trouble if it believes it can sustain its growth without new innovation. In the last five years, as moe became more and more a part of mainstream culture, animation companies have been more willing to exploit the fad for profit. This has led to a rather serious brain drain in writing departments. Anime is first and foremost a visual medium, so it does make sense to invest time and care in order to ensure that basic standards of aesthetics are met. Yet, the exploitation of moe tropes has had an extremely detrimental effect upon the industry’s ability to create coherent, entertaining stories.

The issue of creative brain drain goes far beyond the anime industry. The problem goes much further; manga-ka, light novel authors, eroge scriptwriters… these people collectively shoulder the blame for the degradation in writing quality within the past few years. Of course, the fans are to blame as well. After all, a writer must be able to pay his bills before he can create any sort of literature. Since otaku have been snapping up whatever sort of new moe fad happens to roll off the moe-press, writers have not seen any need to innovate.

As Yamakan noted cynically in his interview, innovation requires thinking. Copy-pasting tropes and rehashing stories doesn’t. I personally am rather tired of seeing the whole “school life some small twist” anime that’s been done times than I care to count. In fact, it seems as if there are very few anime that don’t take place in a school these days.

Naturally, I am not going to reject any anime based on a criterion as arbitrary as setting. I do feel that, were there more attention paid to setting, interesting things would happen. Instead of setting stories in a familiar environment, writers could attempt to experiment with creating entirely new worlds with their own laws and customs. Part of the charm and appeal in shows such as Aria, Mushishi or Spice and Wolf lies in these completely different universes that authors have meticulously created.

Not to say that every show should be set in a fantasy universe. But rather, it may do the anime industry well to examine different segments of society. Instead of doing the same rehashed themes of friendship, love, et cetera, anime could become a vehicle of social criticism or, at least, a microcosm of society. Sadly, anime seems to have strayed away from that path, choosing instead to paint an idyllic and unrealistic portrait of reality. This is rather counterproductive; the greatest series are always the ones that are more varied and less predictable in their treatment of characters and their relationships.

Therefore, the industry should move on to a post-moe mentality. While I am all for beautiful characters and gorgeous visuals, it seems to me that the visual quality in anime has mostly stabilized. Hiring character designers of great skill is no longer such a burdensome task; talented artists are no longer few and far in between. Rather, the industry should shift their focus on better storytelling; lest writers become complacent with their own false sense of security. There will come a time where even the most dedicated otaku becomes tired with variations upon the same theme; more time should be invested in attempting to craft beautiful stories to complement gorgeous visuals. Enough with the hackneyed tsundere, imouto and osananajimi characters. Time to create characters that aren’t cookie-cutter.

What would a post-moe anime industry look like? It is rather difficult to judge from the status quo, as moe and anime are inextricably linked. Shows that are not moe are frequently popular (see: Akagi, TM8,0, etc), but these shows also exhibit the post-moe trait of solid writing. Ultimately, the “moe” that I am referring to is not moe as an artistic movement, but rather, the dangerous trend of judging characters’ personalities as “moe” or “not moe” based on certain tropes or pre-constructed archetypes. Thus, a post-moe industry would be not be one where there would be a large drop in artistic quality or production value. The industry would be more innovative, which would potentially allow anime to break free of its self-isolating niche that it seems to have gotten itself stuck into within the past five or six years. Writers have nothing to lose from simply pitching an idea to studios; I also believe that the Japanese anime-watching population isn’t so intellectually backwards as to reject an anime because none of the characters fit given stereotypes. Interesting characters will always be interesting, and if a writer can generate a story good enough to allow his or her interesting characters to interact in a realistic and fascinating fashion, then so much the better for everyone.

Ultimately, the lack of good writers in the industry is a result of the industry downplaying the importance of plot and characters. This trend should be reversed on both the supply and demand side of the market. Otaku should not remain complacent to watch crap simply because they find the characters aesthetically pleasing cardboard cutouts, and production teams should not allow their characters to become aforementioned cardboard cutouts in order to satiate the appetites of fans. If more shows were willing to experiment and risk potential failure in the name of creating a more accurate model of reality, then the industry will inevitably progress further.

11 Responses to “Post-Moe?”

  1. I have a hard time trying to get behind your rant even though I really want to. I think part of it is as you say–there are a lot of generic crap by %, but at the same time there are some anime that is written creatively and what have you, that takes place outside of a school setting, that’s not about coming of age. It always was the case.

    The other hindrance is actually in the animation front. The technical production side of things is not as rosy as you say. On the contrary, stories are dime a dozen even today. If someone like Nasu Kinoko can get his works put into anime, there is hope for the dozens like him. In fact I think the brain drain comes more so from people trying to approach this route from the technical side. With anime and games easier to make than ever, proliferation of original ideas is a trend. It’s a different matter as to if and how we will see these idea turn into professional work.

    Most of the “core creative teams” in most anime productions are people who worked and rose through the ranks of anime productions of the past. And the brain drain is on these people; not so much on mangaka and people who make eroge or whatever–source material stuff. Or at least, it’s a very different kind of brain drain. Because you can barely make a living as an entry level animator in Japan!

  2. I’m actually pretty pessimistic. Moe is well, what sells in Japan.

    That moe sells well isn’t somehow objectively “bad” on its own. What makes me wary is the combination of the recession with the shrinking Japanese population. Combined with those two aspects, short of another Evangelion or Densha Otoko moment, I feel like the medium is just going to keep looking more inward and getting more insular as it caters to an ever-dwindling market.

  3. I would say that one of the elephants in the room is the guy with the checkbook. Creators might want to experiment, but if their experiments fail to be profitable then they will prefer to work on creatively empty shows because that will put money in their wallet and the studios will want to hire them again for a future project.

    Of course, it can be assumed that good anime should be more profitable than repetitive harem shows, because more people will want to watch something good and will reward a well written story, but this is not always the case.

    Taking that risk requires the financial backing of the studios and their sponsors.

  4. Personally, I think we’re seeing the beginning of the end of the “golden age” of moe. Much like the mecha genre a few decades ago, moe started out as a fresh concept that was profitable and could only exist within the anime medium. However, the industry has pretty much exhausted everything it could do with the concept. I foresee a future where moe will still have some presence (like the mecha genre) but won’t represent over half the new shows that come out in a season.

  5. It’s hard to speculate on what’s going to happen in the mid/long-term future, but I think “post-moe” is a believable possibility. But, I think it will happen as an evolution rather than a revolution, like many art-movements tend to be. There’s just so much money in anime, and when money is involved, people become so wary of risks that they’re much less prepared to take them. But I think otaku are already tiring, if slightly, of the saturation of moe. KyoAni, while still wildly popular, is a much more controversial figure than they were a few years ago, where all but the most ardent moe-haters were willing to embrace their brand of super-moe. There’ll be a big new thing in anime in the future. The wheel turns. I just think, because the wheel is so big now, it’ll happen slowly. But there are reasons to be optimistic about anime. And omo’s point about the creative culture at the grassroots level is a good one. Every now and then doujin artists, from ABe to Ryukishi07, make it big, and get their works made into anime that show great creativity. The technology of storytelling is easier now, so maybe that’ll help with the storytelling itself.

  6. Moe is horrendous. But it’s always been with anime on some level, only now it will never leave because it has finally been articulated, defined, and brought into the otaku consciousness. I can’t wait for this “Golden Age” to diminish. I’d like what’s to come to be something along the lines of what Shinbo is doing, on both an aesthetic (auditory and visual) and narrative level: most anime embracing a relatively unconventional approach to presentation and story that is akin to “kinetic cinema” (high energy, rapid editing, bombastic ideas). It’s a hark back to the once-cherished notion that anime was different from animation, and certainly film.

  7. I’m pretty pessimistic about the anime industry too.

    I have nothing against moe, but like any other genre, too much of something can be sickening. I can’t say whether the moe industry has reached its point of saturation – even though my inner ranting child wants to say so – but I’ve been thinking to myself on how great it would be if it is more proliferated and has better variety. The thing is, that may sound pessimistic because looking from a business point of view, it would be unwise not to continue doing something that’s bringing in the money.

    I don’t know if the otaku community really has had enough of the moe mass diffusion – since they always look like they need it like humans need food – but if the otaku starts to look for something post-moe, then it may be a good sign for those who seeks more variety such as myself. The problem is, in this “post moe world”, will there any new phenomenon that will replace and become the new “moe”? If that happens, although it is good that variety comes along the way, it may have been a short-lived one.

    Whatever happens, I’m just quietly seeking the moment where variety becomes the norm in the anime industry and the medium becomes more than just big-eyed personality-manufactured characters in predictable settings.

  8. Here’s what confuses me: Amazon Japan is loaded with 1 star flame reviews (“I give up”, “Who the hell do they expect to buy this?”, etc.) for the Haruhi S2 DVDs, but the first volume just sold 25k copies in its first week.

  9. @jpmeyer

    It’s really not all that surprising considering that the first two episodes actually had new material. The real test for Haruhists will be seeing if they get all of Endless Eight.

    Besides, when has rage on the internet been a good indicator for what sells well or not?

  10. What Shadowmage said.
    Like those of any medium of storytelling, anime’s early years were a time of disjointed exploration, with a few innovators playing with ideas for some time before settling on one thing or another. In this case, Tomino and Takahashi Ryousuke’s real robot genre might be a good example of an idea that spawned a generation of imitators and pioneers. However, the 90’s that followed (give or take a few years) was a time of innovation for the industry as new directors and studios emerged, with the appearance of many styles and genres we now take for granted and the production of so many “modern classics”. This eventually led into the moe age (alongside the burst in visual novel adaptations?), and it’s been more or less stagnant since then.
    I also wouldn’t say I hate moe, but like AC, saturation is a recipe for distaste. After the last few years with its largely moe-centric ideology, it seems that Sturgeon’s Law might have been an understatement.
    Of course, it’s much too early to say that “anime is dead”. If we prescribe to the idea of history repeating itself, we can hope for this “post-moe” age to be another one full of fresh ideas.

    Here’s hoping. ( ‘∀’)ノ

  11. In a discussion of the industry, how can Akagi and TM 8.0 be considered “popular?” They don’t even have 10,000+ average DVD+BD sales per volume.

    “Otaku should not remain complacent to watch crap simply because they find the characters aesthetically pleasing cardboard cutouts…”

    I read this as “Otaku should like the things I do, not like the things they do.”

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