Welcome to part 2 of this series on how different changes in production and distribution methods affected anime over the years. Last time, I talked about how late-night TV anime came to be the norm for the industry, bringing with it free advertising and the ability to pursue more adult storylines in longer-form media than OVAs (the previously preferred form of adult-oriented anime). The impact of that still plays into today’s topic, though it’s not the subject. This time, the focus is on a pair of subsequent changes that led to still-further increases in production (the second big jump on the graph below).
The first half of the 2000s saw 2 meaningful changes affecting the anime industry. First, studios switched over from old-school cel painting to a digital paint process, reducing production costs and causing a subtle shift in both artstyle and visual presentation. Second, people started buying DVDs over VHS tapes, further reducing production costs (Incidentally DVDs being cheaper to produce than VHS tapes was a key cause of the 2007-2008 WGA strike in America).
The effects of the reduced production costs were simple; more anime got made. And since late-night TV was the wide-open medium at the time, that meant specifically more adult-oriented TV anime got made. It’s a fairly straightforward effect, most visible in the jump in numbers between 2002 and 2003. In that respect, it’s little more than an expansion of the effect that late-night TV had in the first place.
So, getting back to something I mentioned in part 1, why the misconceptions about the supposed decay of contemporary anime in this era?* It’s not like there was nothing good being made in this era (see next paragraph), but there was more being made of a certain kind of TV series. Ecchi and harem romance series, which had previously been a genre mainly relegated to the OVA market, first popped onto TV in 1995 vis a vis one of the many Tenchi Muyo sequels, and quickly came to make up roughly 5-10% of TV anime broadcast from 1998-2006. While the percentage of all TV anime that ecchi and harem anime represented fluctuated by only a couple of percentage points over this period, peaking in 2004 at ~12%, the number of anime made was going up, meaning that the fixed percentage still represented a greater number of these types of shows on TV. In other words, the increase in the abundance of these genres of anime mirrored the general increase in abundance of TV anime at the time.
At the same time, anime was becoming more accessible to foreign markets, more mainstream. Too, the internet was making fansubs accessible to people without shady backroom connections, and suddenly the majority of shows airing were available to people who weren’t into anime enough to learn fluid Japanese. The kind of stuff airing on TV in the early 2000s wasn’t any worse in terms of content than a lot of the stuff that was on the schedule at Anime Con in 1991. Functionally, this was just an effect of the increase in opportunities mixed with a more adult audience very similar to the late-80s OVA boom. It was perceived as something more because the less savory parts of this change were more visible.
The biggest argument against any real decay of anime in any modern period is the sheer number of counterexamples available in any era, and the early digital age is no exception. The peak titles of the 2001-2004 slate are not things to be sneeze at. It contains, among others, NieA_7, Haibane Renmei, Texhnolyze, Gakuen Senki Muryo, s-CRY-ed, Full Metal Panic, Hikaru no Go, Ghost in the Shell: SAC, Kaleido Star, Kino’s Journey, Saikano, Azumanga Daioh, Rahxephon, Scrapped Princess, Shadow Star Narutaru, Cromartie High School, Planetes, Fullmetal Alchemist, Paranoia Agent, Koi Kaze, Monster, Samurai Champloo, Fantastic Children, Desert Punk, Zipang, and Beck. That’s all before even counting the respective rises of noitaminA (debuted with Honey and Clover) and Kyoto Animation (first Key adaptation) as bastions of different kinds of high quality anime in 2005. It might be a list inferior to the 1998-2000 swan song of cel paint,** but I think it holds its own quite nicely. The idea that there weren’t (or aren’t) any good anime in any era is as ridiculous as the idea that there weren’t (or aren’t) any bad anime in any era.
Now that we’re past that, let’s talk a little about the artstyle/visual style ripple that the cel->digital transition sent through the industry. This effect essentially comes out of the fact that detail work involving color and shading is a lot easier to both do and do smoothly with digital paint than with cel paint. Compare these visuals from Master Keaton and Monster (top, same source of character designs) and Serial Experiments Lain and Kino’s Journey (bottom, both directed by Ryutaro Nakamura):
How did this difference change how anime gets made? Aside from simply making character art generally more detailed, the digital shift changed the opportunity cost of animating characters versus animating backgrounds and other, less-detailed objects.*** This caused, among other things, a move away from the background and odd-focus shots that were used both as budget savers and artistic presentation choices in the cel paint era. The transition away from this tactic was kind of a necessity, considering what a reputation for being a lowbrow budget-saving maneuver the style had built up. I personally feel the industry might have tossed the baby out with the bathwater by largely disregarding an important tool. At the same time, this increased abundance of paint detail may be one of the key reasons (beyond simple recency bias) why newer anime are more popular with fans today.
Incidentally, this also meant that lower-budget anime could put in more character art. Though, being lower-budget, that art would still be somewhat less touched up, resulting in the temporary misunderstanding that digital paint was making art worse.
It’s worth nothing that this change was a very complicated and very irregular phenomenon. I don’t want to oversimplify and say it was a universal and swift transition. But it was a change which had some profound effects once it took hold. Of course, even with the cheaper production costs of the digital era, the anime industry was not immune to either the financial crisis of 2007-08 nor the boom-bust cycles of their own entertainment industry. The industry peaked in 2007, when a ludicrous 172 TV anime were produced. This was a fairly unsustainable number; both the Winter and Summer seasons that year saw an average per-show sales total well below the profit line of 3000 disks per volume. Eventually, the studios collaborated to reduce the number of anime produced yearly and unsaturate the market. Producers did happen upon a way to make larger-scale production profitable, and that’s the subject of part 3.
*Depending on who you ask, this decay started around either the turn of the millennium, the past 3-5 years, or the 1980s. The middle one will be addressed in part 3. I’m assuming most people reading this don’t subscribe to that last one.
**In my personal opinion, it kind of is, but that’s coming from someone with a die-hard thing for the late-90s artstyle. Merits of individual shows and the relative merits of individual eras are very much up for passionate debate. That said, such debate needs to start out reasonably, acknowledging each era produced a lot of memorable wonders. It’s similar to how you could have a long, serious argument as to whether Hideaki Anno or Takahiro Omori was the better director, but anyone who insists that either is a bad director in arguing for the other one should not be taken seriously.
***For a more detailed look at how digital anime production works, check out Washi’s excellent summary.