The Expanding/Contracting Anime Fanbase

Floating out there in the general discourse are what seem to be two contradictory ideas of anime fans.

1) Anime is appealing increasingly to a smaller and more niche crowd of otaku, often through devices such as loads of fanservice or active use of moe. As such, the fanbase is becoming more and more a select group of adult men who grow older and smaller in number over time.

2) Anime fans are getting younger and younger, that anime is attracting a primarily female audience. Moreover, a lot of these young fans are not able to retain their fandom as they grow older. They hit a certain age and anime stops being their obsession.

So somehow you have a fandom that is both shrinking and growing larger, while the median age rises but also lowers or remains the same, and this is all being done with the same collective pool of works we call “anime.” On the surface, something doesn’t quite add up. The more I think about it though, the more I find this isn’t necessarily an irreconcilable contradiction. I mostly have impressions and hunches from observing anime and its fans, but I can think of some possibilities as to how these two concepts can co-exist.

It might be that some fans are longing for another period of anime, a self-defined golden age where anime was at its best.  If it’s not simply a matter of nostalgia or specific tastes though, then it could be that these fans are not finding what they want in either side, the young and general, or the old and niche where they might have once been able to easily. So the anime fanbase may not necessarily be shrinking overall, but the demographic ratios may be shifting in a way that’s troubling to some. This one does not necessarily have any flaws, but it seems more to be a mix-up of personal desire for general trends.

Another possibility is that the effects of anime’s move towards extremes in its fanbase cannot be felt immediately and that it will take some number of years to really see the fallout. Perhaps it would be the age at which the current otaku base starts to literally die off, much like some of the criticism surrounding the current state of American superhero comics. This one doesn’t quite feel right through, and I can’t put my finger on why.

Similarly, while the younger fanbase is increasing, they are finding their access to anime through inexpensive means, be it through outright piracy or simply watching things streaming. “The surest” way at the moment to make reliable profit is to hit the collection/merchandise-obsessed otaku, hence all of the light novel adaptations. The amount of money being generated by anime is not what it used to be and may never be at that level ever again, even if there are new fans.

Overall, I’m not really sure. These are incomplete thoughts and I don’t think I’m going to be reaching a solid conclusion any time soon. I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts.


19 thoughts on “The Expanding/Contracting Anime Fanbase

  1. The amount of money being generated by anime is not what it used to be and may never be at that level ever again, even if there are new fans.

    Is this even true?


      • My concerns are these:
        1. “[N]ot what it used to be” is compared to when? The mid 00s? Because it certainly wasn’t much better than things today back in the 80s or 90s, if at all.
        2. a lot of these trends are more macroeconomic than microeconomic, and I’m not sure we can take “amount of money being generated” as some kind of prima facie proof for this without looking at those large-scale factors.


        • I think you’re pretty much right here and I’m not going to pretend to understand all of the large-scale factors at work.

          I was comparing it to the 80s and 90s, but it also had to do with how anime and manga are being distributed and how frantically companies are trying to figure out how to monetize digital distribution. Even if it reaches the same amount of revenue overall, how the money is made in the future may be a very different thing and it may result in very different fans. Part of it is just that, as shown by jmanga, they’re having trouble adjusting.

          But then that’s just my speculation, based off some impressions. In this instance, it was just noticing the ground shifting and trying to take a stab at what might causing it. Personally, I’m not entirely sure about my point either.


        • Surely the days when makers of anime “X” could get all their money back from the Japanese market, then sell the rights for $30,000 per episode (yes that’s what Sailor Moon cost back in the day) to the U.S., then do it again for slightly less in France, Germany, Britain etc., are over. In that sense, things will never be as good as they used to be.

          That being said, the quality of anime is still high, somehow. I am thankful to Japanese fans who pay $80 per episode and the animators who work for $800 a month.


  2. Would like to hear a bit more about how light novel adaptations specifically are targeting the merchandise otaku, as the connection is not immediately clear to me.

    I do worry that anime may succumb to the Hollywood temptation of sequel overdose and that the light novel adaptations are becoming the new comic book adaptations. And studios seem to be trending to a lot of the same tropes and formulas to appease the advertisers. In that respect, the shrink-increase might be due to a a big push to expand the demographic (as seen with recent attempts at cross-pacific collaboration e.g. NicoNico and the relatively high number of big US licenses this past Summer). You add more people to the mix, but alienate some of the older members in the process.

    I also assume this article is addressing the overseas fanbase, although I wonder if the Japanese base is undergoing something similar.


  3. Just my impression, but I think Anime stopped being a ghetto subculture and became more popular and mainstream when American distributors decided to take English dub quality and English voice acting performances seriously, from about the early 2000s onward. Dubs from the 90s and earlier do kinda suck, I will agree. But since about 2004 the quality improves markedly.

    Tasteful, restrained use of CGI helps, too, adding to the overall aesthetic quality of the product. Plots and stories have gotten deeper, more compellling, less superficial…it’s not just Big Giant Mecha Robots and Girls With Big Boobs anymore (not that there’s anything wrong with those in moderation)…there’s real emotional depth to the characters and stories now that I don’t think were present in what made it to the US market before the 2000s.

    I think the Disney/Myazaki/Studio Ghibli (sp?) collaborations also help a lot of fans discover Anime as a genre for the first time. Shows like Teen Titans definitely show influences from Anime and probably also spark curiosity in viewers. I’m not just an Japanese Anime fan myself, I love Animation in general…Love Spike & Mikes, the Int’l Tournee of Animation back in the day, all that. Weird Eastern European stuff, love it all.


  4. I get the impression a lot of recent growth in the otaku population is geared more toward non-anime products – or, at least, products only tangentially related to anime – such that there’s an appearance of the anime fanbase contracting even as the greater otaku population explodes. There’s so much more to choose from these days. Especially so for those outside Japan.


  5. I think discussions like this are bound to such contradictory “self-evident truths” until we have open and clearly sourced numbers. If we know the actual numbers (size, age, etc.) we can have a useful discussion, but the current situation is completely opaque. It is impossible to know how many anime are watched, sold, or whatever. Until we have good data, we will have people saying anything that they feel to be true.


    • You’re probably right here. I just wanted to get the idea out of my head. Maybe if I ever get around to collecting data, I’ll be able to make a properly documented follow-up.


  6. If I had to come up with a simple expiration, I would probably say that this divergence is primarily geographic, with #1 being true for Japanese fans, who drive what the market creates and hence what we watch, where as #2 is more typical of the United States where Anime continues to find a broader fanbase (these are the people we have go to conventions with, so its sort of a lose-lose for the people who are leveling these complaints).


    • I think you may be right here. One thing I wonder about in regards to that is how the rough pool of shows that are made for #1 manage to attract people from #2 (though I understand that it’s not like a perfect 1:1 ratio).


    • This was my thought process as well. #1 is a criticism that many like to throw out regarding the types of shows that are coming out for anime fans in Japan (becoming too insular, only focusing on otaku because they’re the ones who pay, at the risk of shrinking the market too far), while #2 is more of a general observation of the apparently changing demographics of anime fandom in the “West”. Though you can also say that #2 is also used as a criticism that no long lasting passion remains as an anime fan.


  7. I kind of hate to take this angle again, but we should probably also define “anime fan” while we’re at it. With Internet distribution (both legal and otherwise), the barrier to entry as at an all-time low, so the amount of people watching anime is high. But the conversion rate from viewer to customer/purchaser did not necessarily track with that increase in viewership. So if you define anime fans as “the amount of people watching anime”, it’s likely up, but if you define anime fans as “the amount of customers purchasing anime” (which is likely the angle the industry is most interested in), it’s not necessarily up. And even if you take the “customer” definition, with anime franchises being so media-diverse these days, you have to again define what you mean; if someone watched an anime, but purchases a book/CD/figure/game/other from the same franchise, do they count as an “anime customer” or not?

    So all in all, probably file this under “statistics can be made to prove anything” thanks to poor definitions and methodologies. If we can agree on what we’re measuring and how we’re measuring it, then we can probably make more educated guesses (even though actual data is hard to come by).


    • You raise some good points, but remember that in Japan people can watch these shows for free (that is they are broadcast on TV), so even without the Internet the same ambiguity crops up. If someone watches a show on Japanese TV, never buys the anime on disc, but *does* buy a CD of the OP song, are they an “anime consumer”? If they watch the same show, or even many such shows, but never buy a related item, are they still an “anime fan”?


      • Well, sometimes they can watch the show for free, it’s not a Pay TV/Premium Channel show, they live in the right market (like the Tokyo metropolitan area), and set their DVRs to record it at whatever middle-of-the-night timeslot it airs in. And it should be said that, even in the late-night time slots, viewership is still tracked and advertising is still served (even if it’s advertising for the show itself and its merchandising partners), so it has some value to the parties involved. So it isn’t like the Internet is *actually* the equivalent to “free TV”, or even that every show airs on “free TV”. What piracy does is increase the ambiguity about just how big the market really is, and makes it harder for marketers to pinpoint the kind of products that audience is willing to buy. Plus, for those who download a pirated copy, there is some question of whether this lowers their need/desire to purchase a copy of the same content they ostensibly already have (DVD/BD touch-ups/corrections notwithstanding… but that content can also be pirated later).

        But that aside, you’re right that the ambiguity is still present whether you bring the Internet into the debate or not. The definition question stands either way.


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