Much has often been made of how the anime industry has evolved over the years. Whenever this is pointed out, it’s usually framed in the form of some criticism; the prevailing artstyle has changed (somewhat true, but largely irrelevant), the amount of ecchi/harem anime has increased (true, though they are now less profitable than other genres), awesome manly anime don’t get made like they used to be (false), artsy anime never sell these days (false). One of the bigger indicators of sour grapes on the part of people offering such criticisms is the assertion that it wasn’t always this way, that whatever change they point out in modern anime is a symptom of the declining health of a sickly industry doomed to implode upon itself.* In reality, that implosion kind of already happened back in 2007; anime makers overproduced and had a bad year, and so made an industry-wide decision to cut back on the number of anime being made yearly. The result? Anime’s still here; the worst that happened was that 2010-2011 saw production drop back to 2003 levels, and 2012 saw an increase in production equivalent to the 2009-2010 dropoff:
Just because the industry’s making lots of stuff doesn’t mean it’s all selling well, though. That’s another point worth examining, because it turns out anime nowadays is better at churning out hits than it’s been at any point in the past.
A while ago, I wrote a series of articles examining changes from a somewhat less doomsaying perspective, breaking down how the biggest changes in anime affected what was being made. The basic premise of those articles was that, over time, the overall number of TV anime being made has increased due to several distinct shifts in the industry that either cut costs (transitioning from cels to digital animation) or added revenue streams (late-night TV timeslots, the introduction of BDs), and the overall increase in numbers meant more chances for more creators to make something memorable. At the time, I had to rely anecdotal evidence for the strengths behind each era. However, I recently happened upon this list of the all-time best-selling anime from the 1980s to the present, which offers an alternative way of examining the data. To wit: is the number of hit anime strictly a fixed percentage of the total number of TV anime, or has that been changing over time? If the industry were in declining health, we might expect to see hit series make up a smaller fraction of the overall docket as the market shrinks.
Note: To control for small-number variations in the sample, I took the total number of hit anime in a given 2-year period and divided that by the total number of TV anime made in that same period.
Notice how strikingly regular those percentages are prior to 2007-2008; aside from one blip from 1995-1996 (aka: the year of Evangelion that prompted a doubling of the total number of TV anime in 2 years), the percentage of hit anime is remarkably regular, staying within 3-5% of the total produced. However, once the BD era started to take hold, you see a steady increase in the fraction of anime that became big hits. The narrative here – makers of anime found a way to reach larger audiences – is fairly clear. It’s not like this increase in percentages is just a function of the cutback, either. Rather, the overall number of hit shows went up in 2011 despite the decrease in the overall number of TV anime:
There are plenty of ways to debate the state of the industry, and certainly there are other measures (Manga/LN loss leader success rate, TV ratings, and character goods sales among them) that determine the overall profitability of anime. But there’s reasonably strong evidence to suggest anime’s gotten better at reaching a larger audience over the years, not worse. There may be a ceiling to that improvement, but you have to twist the numbers to a large degree to depict anime production as an industry in decline.
*I’m not talking about the low salaries and bad working conditions that animators face. That is still a fairly legitimate concern, though it’s been happening for some time now and the industry hasn’t collapsed yet.