Ask John: Do Japanese Viewers Treat Anime Shows as Fads?
Recently a friend said to me, “A lot of anime shows in Japan are more like ‘fads’ to viewers. They appear and just as quickly disappear, without anymore interest except from a small audience.” I recalled you stating how manga was a disposable commodity. And so I would like to inquire: do you agree with this statement, and if so, does this alter anime’s position as an art form?
I believe your friend’s observation is correct. I do want to clarify, though, that I don’t believe in a direct correlation between the Japanese perspective and lifetime of manga compared to anime. When I stated that manga is a disposable commodity, I meant the physical printed magazine or book may be considered disposable in Japanese society – not specifically the artistic content of the pages. Anime isn’t literally disposable in the same way that manga is because anime is expensive to purchase while manga is cheap to purchase. But the influence, popularity, and longevity of both manga and anime may outlast their physical publication, or may achieve a lasting place only within a small field, or may not achieve any lasting status at all. Regardless of fame or longevity, popularity doesn’t define an artwork or an art form.
Anime is an from of creative art because it’s an artistic product of human creativity and imagination. Anime is different from a refrigerator or a can of processed food because it’s something inventive, expressive, and artistic. It’s not essential for life; it’s not constructed on an assembly line that churns out countless exact duplicates of the same physical product. Anime is the expression of the unique, individual imagination of creative artists. The degree to which that creative expression is recognized and respected by others is irrelevant. It’s virtually a cliché for artists to die poor and unknown, only to become respected and acknowledged after their death. Art is art, regardless of whether it’s famous or popular.
Obsessive anime fans and Japanese artists may consider anime an art form, but mainstream Japanese society perceives anime as a commonplace, transient commodity. Likewise, Americans may rationally be aware that live action movies are art, but very few of them are respected or remembered for their artistic qualities. (Of course, there are always exceptions, but I think that many actors, film makers, and artists take their craft very seriously.) There are dozens, and these days, literally hundreds of anime released annually in Japan. In fact, it’s only April, but by the end of this month there will have already been roughly 100 new anime title premiers in Japan so far this year! With so many anime titles available, many of them targeted only at a small audience of hardcore Japanese fans, and many of them broadcast on TV late at night, it’s difficult for even obsessive fans to keep track of them all. And even hardcore fans tend to find their interests shift from show to show. With four new TV seasons of anime every year in Japan, every three months there’s another batch of new programs that are interesting because they’re totally new and unfamiliar, compared to older titles that viewers are already familiar with. Consider that just within the past two years, shows targeted specifically at hardcore anime fans such as Ryusei Sentai Musumet, Magical Canan, Izumo, Suzuka, and Okusama wa Joshikousei have already been virtually forgotten.
Mainstream Japanese viewers watch anime with the same lackadaisical attitude that many Americans watch prime time sitcoms. For many Japanese viewers, anime are a passing diversion to be enjoyed then promptly forgotten. Similarly, average American prime-time television programs don’t develop significant cult followings that remain loyal for months and years after the show ends. Even here in America, shows like .Hack, Outlaw Star, Gundam Wing, and Love Hina have had periods of tremendous popularity and have since cooled off. Japan does have a reputation as a country whose pop culture is characterized by progressive trends and fads, and I have no doubt that Japanese pop culture’s short attention span affects the popularity of specific anime. But I don’t think that anime itself is a passing fad, nor do I think that interest in particular anime constitutes a fad. I don’t think that the devotion of viewers shifts away from current and older anime onto new and upcoming shows because of an attitude that newer is better. If that were the case, titles like Nausicaa and Gundam wouldn’t still be as highly respected and popular as they are. I think that many Japanese fans simply like the art form of anime more than individual anime titles, so curiosity draws their attention from show to show. The fluctuating popularity of specific anime series in Japan may be compared to passing fads, but I think that a fad implies a temporal trendiness that doesn’t apply to anime. Fads die when their subject falls out of favor. In most cases, I don’t think that anime series actually become passé after a certain period of time; viewer attention simply shifts elsewhere and shows naturally become forgotten.