Every so often, the anime industry goes through a period of transition that alters how and for whom anime is made and distributed. Call them paradigm shifts or whatever; I call them sea changes. There are at least 4 major sea changes that I know of that have significantly altered the industry: the OVA boom of the late 80s/early 90s, the transition of TV anime from daytime to late-night from 1996-1998, the transition from cels to digital art in the early 2000s, and the Blu-Ray Era starting sometime between 2006 (when they were officially introduced) and 2009 (when they made up a majority of the market). Each one of these transitions had a unique and lasting impact on the industry. Unfortunately, I lack the knowledge to write with any real authority on the OVA boom. This article is the first in a 3-part series covering the latter 3 sea changes and how they influenced the production of anime over the past two decades.
Sea Change #1: The Late-Night Revolution (1996-1998)
Before 1995, TV anime was a fairly static medium. While it’s not like it never targeted older audiences or controversial subject matter, it didn’t do so very often and the vast majority of TV anime at that point were long-runners aimed at kids. The steady nature of the medium is reflected on the graph (taken from myanimelist data) by the fairly constant number of TV anime to air over that 10-year period:
But then, in 1996, two things happened. First, TV stations realized that the hardcore audience of anime was something that could be tapped for ratings in the explosive aftermath of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s still-record success. Then, in October of that year, TV Tokyo stuck an anime called Those Who Hunt Elves on at an ungodly late hour. While Those Who Hunt Elves was not the first anime to be aired past the closing time of some host clubs, it wasn’t just a sacrificial use of dead air like, say, Sennin Buraku in the 1960’s. No, it was at the spearhead of this new, larger push to fill dead air with something steady.* And got ratings far exceeding the norm for that timeslot. So, after a bit more water-testing in 1997, the industry cannonballed into the late-night pool. The number of total TV anime to air in 1998 was 72, a number double the average of the last 5 years. Aside from a brief dip in 2000, this number only continued to grow over the years.
I can’t emphasize enough that late-night TV anime are a win-win proposition for all sides in this situation (TV stations, anime studios, anime fans) for a number of reasons. The TV stations win because they fill what is essentially a vacant lot with something they can milk some advertising revenue out of, and they don’t have to pour a ton of in-house effort into filling that gap. The anime studios win because they get both a ton of extra publicity for their product** and a few extra yen from the TV stations.*** The anime fans win because they get a greater abundance of anime, and a way to watch shows they might otherwise not try.****
In many respects, the transition to late-night timeslots triggered a miniature golden age that lasted roughly 3 years, ending around the time of the abandonment of traditional cel-paint animation for digital production (the second sea-change). There were still plenty of duds to pop out of the era, but I’m talking about a 3-year span that gave us Master Keaton, Excel Saga, Cowboy Bebop, Now and Then Here and There, Initial D, Big O, Infinite Ryvius, Berserk, Boogiepop Phantom, Outlaw Star, Trigun, Serial Experiments Lain, Gasaraki, Kurogane Communication, Sakura Wars, Love Hina, Crest of the Stars, To Heart, Strange Dawn, Brigadoon, Legendary Gambler Tetsuya, and Hajime no Ippo. You’ll notice that list contains an all-star lineup of “anime used to be so cool” people who toss up this list against “modern moe crap”.***** It’s also saw the serial TV debut of Ryutaro Nakamura and Nishimura Satoshi, Akitaro Daichi’s best work, the second anime of a Naoki Urasawa manga,****** and plenty of glorious Eurobeat. This fleeting 3-year time was essentially a brief window in time where the best, most skilled experts of by-now perfected cel-paint anime techniques were handed big swaths of time to fill with what they wanted to create. Money was still a concern (it never isn’t, and never shouldn’t be), but the late-night availability of timeslots gave these creators as wide a window as they could have possibly had.
In the long term, the shift of anime to late-night TV also led to a large number of low-quality products made to fill space and sell DVDs the cheap, ecchi way. It didn’t help that digital animation was just being put into use and the process of adapting to this new technology resulted in a general drop in quality across the board. I’ll get to all of that in Part 2. Stay Tuned!
*It’s important to note that this move wasn’t so much a shot in the dark as it was a calculated move based on the success of radio broadcasts at the same time targeted at the same demographic.
**Compare OVAs, where during the boom it was a hurdle just to let people know your project existed.
***Similar to licenses, this doesn’t much matter for ~25% of anime that are solid successes or the ~55% unequivocal failures, but for the ~20% in the marginal sales department, even pitiful TV revenue can push a project over the line.
****Provided they’re willing to forever have dark bags and bloodshot eyes, but hey.
*****This line of logic is pretty much BS, but it’s a perception that exists for a reason. I’ll get into the latter in part 2, and the former in parts 2 and 3.
******Master Keaton was also unique in that it had a 2-season TV run before transitioning to OVAs for the last 15 episodes.