I’m sure you’ve heard this question yourself at one point or another: are we over the hump? Is the best anime ever created behind us, the future just a shell of its former self? The topic seems to rear its head every couple years. And honestly, I think I’ll take my own stab at answering this question.
The biggest problem I have is that we quantify when the “peak” of anime is. How exactly do you decide when we have gotten to the best of anime? I’ve, as mentioned previously, studied engineering, so I like numbers. I’m comfortable with them. When I go to bed, I sleep with hugging a calculator. Okay, that last one’s a lie, but you get the point. I want to know how exactly we’re deciding what’s the apex of the anime era. I’ve tried the method I’ve always heard below. If you have any other ideas, let me know. Anyways the common line I’ve heard is that the golden age of anime will have occurred when the best shows were most frequently produced (the second most common is: when the best overall anime was produced, but that follows with the same path of thought). I really, really hate this concept. It’s simply too hard for me to imagine using since we’re taking an extremely multi-dimensional issue as quality of a show and compressing all those facets into a single univariate metric: a sliding scale of good-bad. Everything else is dropped. And this, in addition to human subjectivity, make it a major hurdle.
I’ll try to show this by example. Try listing the best anime period. Go ahead. Take a few seconds and scribble/mentally list down your top 5 anime.
Done? Good. Well, let’s take a look a few I found lying around. These weren’t exactly hard to find, as most belong to friends of mine (in no particular order), but I think this gets the point across:
Person 1: Elfen Lied, Gintama, Death Note, Clannad, Fate/Stay Night
Person 2: Full Metal Panic? Fummofu, Air, Gintama, GaoGaiGar, Usagi Drop
Person 3: Lucky*Star, Kanon, Toradora!, Kanamemo, Higurashi
Person 4 (my own): Serial Experiments Lain, Martian Successor Nadesico, Slayers NEXT. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Boogiepop Phantom
Person 5: Junjou Romantica, Gravitation, Loveless, Lucky*Star, Kanon
Person 6: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, Yuru Yuri, Hidan no Aria, Gosick, MM!
While I don’t fully expect you to check against it, the list stands for itself: I count about 27 different “top 5” shows in a maximum of 30 possibilities. The idea of deciding the era of best anime is something fairly impossible to do when we can’t even agree on what the top anime are period. And that’s why I don’t like this metric: it’s too simple. This isn’t a problem just in anime, but in all subjective medium. List your top 5 books, movies, video games, board games, comics…anything subjective and you’ll mind it’s nearly impossible to create a consensus.
A Field of Clones: Marking Without Subjectivity
Okay though…let’s say we remove all human subjectivity. Everybody is the exact same…we’re all robots who don’t have biases towards certain works, art styles, or character types.
Even then, I can’t see this question ever being answered in this manner. There are too many variables to consider even then. We’re crossing genres, eras. How can you compare, let’s say, Mazinger Z‘s quality to K-On!’s? Neon Genesis Evangelion to Naruto? Paranoia Agent vs Gosick? The old saying of comparing apples to oranges come to mind. What is better: Having a great story or spending your budget on music? All this is extremely subjective work and it becomes extremely difficult to analyze what is good and what is bad in this manner. And then, how do we reconcile the difference in art quality? There’s no question that today animators have the tools to make shows that animators of days gone by could only dream of. And if they so desired, they could even replicate the old style. So what do we call an old show which worked hard to make the prettiest show it could, but hasn’t stood well to time? For most of you, I’m sure you remember a time when the movie Jurassic Park was THE line for special effects supremacy. Heck, some of you may have remembered when it was Star Wars. Point being, we can’t judge them by simple metrics. Jurassic Park is outdated by today’s standards, but context needs to be taken into account.
If we try to limit this any further, to constrain the fields to take into consideration context of era, we’re still stuck. We still are comparing across genres. Is a harem show better than a psychological thriller? Is a show designed for children inherently worse than one written for adult audiences? We have too many questions here even. And if we try to separate by genre, we’re getting into further specifics that we can’t use to analyze what the best era for anime as a while is. We’re just listing when the best eras for specific genres are. Such a thing is typically done with Hollywood films.
Where Does That Leave Us? Has Anime Peaked or Not?
To be blunt: I can’t say. We have no evidence of the claim, but nothing to defend with either, since we have no measurement system – the one which I’m familiar with is flawed in its approach. Now, that isn’t to say that it possibly hasn’t peaked. We just don’t have evidence of it happening. It’s kind of like me saying “We have measurements of 8, then 9, then 5. Are we in trouble?”. You have no way of knowing how to answer that without further information. Same here…we have no good way of knowing what direction we’re heading really since we can’t consolidate into a useful metric.
But I See So Much Garbage These Days!
Ah. Well, there is. But this is hardly the exception to the rule. If you’re one who watches movies, do you remember Reign of Fire? Don’t Say a Word? Contraband? The Avengers, but with Sean Connery? They all exist. And it’s not like I’m picking back water movies for the most part…these are all 15 years old or lower with some fairly reasonable in terms of their actors and budgets.
So what’s the point of bringing that up? Well, people have short attention spans. No way around it. We don’t remember things past a few years unless they are really standout. There is such a large amount of stuff happening in our lives and so much flooding of our entertainment that we tend to forget everything mediocre in short order, only being able to recall the really good or the extremely bad. And it’s not like everything is really bad, just that most are mediocre.
How does this play into our belief that anime is going downhill? Well, when all you remember from 1997 is Slayers TRY, Oh My Goddess!, and Revolutionary Girl Utena and compare it to today, things tend to look a bit greener on that side. Little does anybody tell you about any of the other 35 or more anime series going on TV unless you’re a fan of the genre. And, if you’re really unlucky, you may remember something like Don’t Leave Me Alone, Daisy, an anime about stalking. Flat out. Simply put, if all you remember are the hits, you will imagine things to be better than they are. Give modern anime a few years time and the memories of the mediocre will vanish, only leaving us with memories of the horrible and (mostly) the good. And this is the often described “nostalgia goggles” effect.
But this also cuts a little in both directions too. Modern shows tend to polarize to the extremely negative or positive opinion, harder than you would expect. This is because they are remembered against a much weaker field than shows which have been time-tested. In this sense, they’re competing against a weaker audience. Let’s go back to the example of 1997. Those shows are compared to shows of the era, but nobody remembers the garbage of the year. They’re comparing it against shows from years beside it now. From 1996, they’re now being compared against Martian Successor Nadesico, Rurouni Kenshin, and (infamously) Dragonball GT. From the other side, they’re also being compared with Cowboy Bebop, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Trigun, among others. That is a fairly tough crowd to be in…much more so than their original crowd, which made them stand out better.
What if? What if? What if?
Okay, so let’s just say, hypothetically, that anime is post-apex. That whatever we see now is going to not hold a candle to the past. Mediums can sometimes die out in favour of others going forward. And just what if anime actually is on the edge of a cliff, spiralling towards its own demise?
We have seen this before. For example, literature used to hold a great control over our quiet, indoor entertainment. I don’t think it’ll ever hold the exact same position again. Not with e-books, not with libraries adjusting, not even with smart phones wired into our eyes I imagine. Even certain art forms of literature have experienced this. Poetry used to be the great expression of soul. To some degree, that’s what movies are for now. Granted, literature and poetry still exist today, but not to the degree they used to. If anime is a dying art as well, then I think we’ll see it take steps back, into a niche art. There will always be anime. To alter a quote from the mayor of my recently water-logged city, “It may be very, very different, but it will still exist”. And when this happens, I think fans must be ready for change. Things are never going to be static. In the last 30 years, we’ve seen massive shifts in popular anime genre already, from the somewhat bleak stories of the ’80s to the expansion into America and the child market of the ’90s, to the resurgence and integration into popular culture in the ’00s, to the not too unfamiliar modern phenomenon of the moe character type. There’s no reason to expect things to stay the same forever. Being such a large market will likely not be a permanent occurrence either.
That’s not to say that good shows can’t exist. Oh no. Good writing is printed today. Good plays are being written, excellent poetry is being dreamed up. Similarly, good anime can still exist. And that’s something to always look for. There will always be a hit coming around the corner. It may not be at the same frequency, but there will be something to watch. And it will be good.
But honestly, I don’t think we’re there yet. To me, that’s a struggle for another day.