Ask John: Why Don’t We Get More Original Anime?

Why is it that the majority of anime are adapted from a manga (or light novel, visual novel, etc.)? Why are there so few original stories? I don’t mind an anime adapted from something else if the story is complete, but all too often the anime ends before the manga is finished and we are left with an incomplete story in the anime. It’s very frustrating.

I’m sure that I’ve addressed this question before, but since I haven’t done so recently, a new response may be valuable to new readers.

In most cases – powerful studios like Ghibli are an exception – anime production studios don’t always get to choose the titles they animate. Anime productions are originated by production committees that decide what to animate, secure production financing, and contract a studio to create the animation. These production committees have an obligation to their investors to create anime that will generate a financial return. Adaptations of hits simply have a greater probability of being profitable than original concepts. Adaptations of successful properties already have a complete story concept to build from, so sponsors don’t have to worry about a production falling apart. For example, in 2007 Satelight animator Yokou Koube publicly stated that Kissdum ~Engage Planet~ creator & director Yasuchika Nagaoka hadn’t written out a complete concept for the anime and wanted to cancel the production but couldn’t because investors had already committed Satelight to the production. Shortly later, Nagaoka abandoned the anime, resulting in Kissdum becoming one of the decade’s biggest anime fiascoes. In addition to adaptations of existing works providing the security of knowing that the story foundation is already done, adaptations have a pre-existing consumer audience. However, the advantage of an established audience also shackles anime development.

Otaku are a bipolar bunch that demand slavish faithfulness or total uniqueness. Anime including 2001’s Hellsing, 2003’s Fullmetal Alchemist, Bokurano, Dance in the Vampire Bund, and long-running shounen anime such as Bleach and Naruto that stray from their source narratives or include “filler” episodes or story arcs get criticized and rejected by viewers, resulting in viewers abandoning the shows or demanding remakes more faithful to their source. But when anime are too faithful to their source materials, like the 1997’s Berserk, 2004’s Tenjho Tenge, or 2006’s Shijo Saikyo no Deshi Kenichi, they’re criticized for lacking conclusive resolutions. Fans suggest that adaptations should be produced only after the source work is complete, so the anime adaptation may have a definitive ending. But the financial necessity of anime development demands that adaptations be made at the peak of a title’s popularity, which usually occurs during the beginning or middle of a title’s lifespan. Ideal adaptations that faithfully animate the source, complete with a satisfying, conclusive ending, just aren’t physically and financially practical to produce.

Manga and novels are largely the creation of one or a small number of creators, and print is cheap. Anime production involves dozens or hundreds of staffers and major financial expenditure. Manga and novels have the opportunity to be original and break new ground. Original anime production is much riskier because it’s far more costly. Riding the coattails of a hit title is much safer for producers and investors than attempting to break new ground in anime form. While otaku clamor for original anime, statistically otaku don’t actually support original anime near as frequently. For every Angel Beats, Madoka Magica, AnoHana, or Tiger & Bunny that becomes a big hit, there are many more original anime like Sora no Woto, Heroman, Senkou no Night Raid, Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin, Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, Star Driver, Dog Days, Sacred Seven, and Guilty Crown that either aren’t big hits or worse, accrue intense viewer criticism.

We, as anime fans, demand original anime. But when original anime do premiere, we frequently don’t watch them. We complain about adaptations then complain when adaptations aren’t faithful enough – either because they diverge from their inspirations or because they don’t manage to comprehensively adapt their source – failing to recognize that our demands are impractical and even unreasonable. Anime fans are so emotionally devoted to their hobby that they want every anime to be ideal and perfect, but real world circumstances and necessities result in very few anime productions actually having the opportunity to attain perfection. Rather than lament the anime we don’t get, we should celebrate and be grateful for the anime we do get, remembering that anime isn’t primarily made for us, nor does Japanese animation have any obligation to appease us American viewers. Japan continues to produce the anime that’s most profitable in Japan and most appealing to Japanese viewers. So until America can demonstrate a revenue market big enough to influence the Japanese production industry, our complaints and demands will remain the self-contradictory whining of a fringe market rather than the influential demands of the majority paying audience.

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