Every so often, the anime industry goes through a metamorphosis and comes out on the other side looking a bit different. In parts one and two of this series, I covered how late-night TV timeslots altered the landscape of how adult-oriented anime was produced and how the switch to digital painting affected both the abundance of shows made and the predominant artstyle. Unless you believe that we’re in the middle of the beginning of another one right now with Net-only full-season shows or 3DCG shows,* the most recent major sea change to beset industry was the introduction of Blu-Rays, which came into the field in late 2006 and were making up the majority of sales for most adult-oriented anime by 2009.
Why do Blu-Rays make a difference? Consider this: for most adult-oriented anime, a typical Blu-Ray (hereafter BD) volume costs around 7000 yen, whereas a typical DVD copy of the same anime costs around 6000 yen. That doesn’t sound like a huge markup, but keep in mind that the studios aren’t just just selling complete packs here and calling it at day. A typical 12-episode anime release will be spread over 6 volumes, and a a typical 24-episode release will be spread over 8. If a studio sells BDs instead of DVDs for a 12-episode anime selling at a break-even average of 3000 per volume, the equal production costs mean that’s 18 million extra yen (about 15% of a typical anime budget) that studios can put towards smoother animation, covering a studio’s debts, or making sure their animators can sleep on more luxurious park benches. Put another way, if an anime does exceptionally well and sells over 20,000 volumes, something that happened over 30 times since the era began, there’s enough profit from BD residuals alone to cover the costs of a whole other anime.** Too, it could definitely be argued that the industry would have undergone significantly more shrinkage if not for that extra BD revenue.
Now, there’s a key assumption hidden in the previous paragraph: I’m assuming a very inelastic environment, where fans will automatically buy BDs even with the higher prices. I can make this assumption because anime fan culture in Japan is structured around catering to superfans who sink most of their money. One of the downsides of higher BD prices is that it arguably raises the bar for owning anime even higher.
Granted, fans can still buy DVDs, but this higher price wall may be why otaku-centric ecchi and harem anime have gotten more prevalent as a function of the overall landscape. Specifically, the percentage of TV anime containing ecchi and harem content increased to as much as 27% in 2010, significantly above the previous 18% peak in 2004.*** This increase is a function of both the cutback in the total number of TV anime I mentioned at the end of part 2 and more ecchi/harem shows being produced in general.
What else has been happening with the industry in this era thanks to BDs? Well, for one thing, animation’s gotten better, thanks to a combination of the money and refined technique over time. That extra 15 percent is something that can be spread around for touch-ups on the art or budget-burning sakuga scenes, both things which bump up a show’s entertainment value when applied correctly.
For another, blockbuster anime (anime with per volume sales exceeding 10,000) have become a much more common phenomenon. The last time an anime season failed to log a single blockbuster (Winter 2007) was over 5 years ago, and the average number of blockbusters per year in the 2008-2012 period (about 12 per year) well exceeded the previous 2005-2007 totals (about 7 per year). These blockbusters tend to be better shows on average, and their profits go towards better animation and more economically risky anime. Part of this blockbuster phenomenon, I think, is due to the aforementioned cutback in TV anime. Now that fewer shows are being made on average, the industry’s talent and effort are concentrated on a smaller range of shows, and audiences for a given type of show are less split on what they should buy.
Those are hardly the only dynamic to be in play lately, though. I wrote an article a while back debunking the idea that these types of anime were the ones that sell the most, and one of the big things I noticed is that those shows not qualified as ecchi had significantly higher average sales during the BD era, whereas average sales for ecchi shows were virtually unchanged. This increase may be due to the fact that the majority of the increased number of blockbuster anime fall outside the ecchi category, but there’s ample evidence that experimental/artsy anime can sell without needing any kind of fanservice (Tatami Galaxy and Natsume Yuujinchou being standout examples). There’s also some evidence that the industry’s on a bounceback in both areas right now; the number of TV anime made in 2012 was significantly above that of 2010/2011, and the number of ecchi/harem series declined a bit as well.
In the long term, it’s possible (but by no means a certainty) that we could end up seeing a shift away from lowest-common-denominator shows of that variety. What we won’t see is said genres taking over the industry entirely and pushing all other genres out. Even within anime, even in the BD era, they’re something of a niche market (albiet one with a very solid floor). And even those lowest-common-denominator shows serve another higher purpose; more projects mean more people have a chance to stay employed in the industry. One of last fall’s hotshot new directors, Shingo Suzuki (K), picked up a fair amount of experience and pay working on throwaway projects like Kiddy Grade and The Sacred Blacksmith.
So that’s more or less where we are right now in the BD era, with a healthy market and better animation. I wouldn’t call it a golden age, primarily because it’s stupid to call something a golden age or a dynasty in anything other than hindsight. But I would say it’s been a strong time, good for plenty of quality works.**** Here’s hoping the next 5 years, whatever changes they bring, will be as strong as the last.
*My thoughts on this eventually spilled over into a 500-word footnote that deserves its own entry.
**Of course, an anime selling that much covers much more than just that.
***A quick mea culpa here, I made a spreadsheet error last time and added the percentages of ecchi/harem shows incorrectly. The combined percentage varied from 5% to 13% peaked at 18% in 2004, not 5% to 10% peaking at 12% as I stated in part 2.
****I hope there’s really no need to list them off for people who pay attention to modern anime, but the BD era has thus far given us a slate including Baccano, Bakemonogatari, Giant Killing, Usagi Drop, Tiger and Bunny, Fate Zero, Un-Go, Steins Gate, Blue Exorcist, Future Diary, Katanagatari, Daily Lives of High School Boys, Another, Ano Hana, Panty and Stocking, Attack on Titan, Angel Beats, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Humanity Has Declined, the latest and arguably greatest Lupin III series, and of course Madoka Magica. Try refuting the collective quality of that slate. I dare you.