“Broad Appeal?”

Whenever I see an article or post about how anime is declining because of a focus on an increasingly niche, otaku audience, I’m a little taken aback. This is not only because the most commonly given solution, i.e. “make things with broader appeal” is easier said than done, but that the very idea itself doesn’t actually seem to be what its most adamant proponents truly mean or want.

Take Redline for instance, which is touted by a number of people as a sort of magic bullet that has the potential to blast away years of anime-related stigma. Certainly it’s a fantastic film on a number of different levels, but I have a hard time believing that it qualifies as “broadly appealing,” unless your definition of “broadly appealing” is limited to geeks with a penchant for thrills and visual spectacle, or alternately, anime fans from previous decades, especially from when “anime” was closely tied to “science fiction” in their eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to argue that the storytelling in Redline is excellent, and that it’s far more than just pretty explosions, but something like Redline will be not judged by a more general audience unfamiliar with anime based on the subtle nuance that exists in its otherwise extreme characters. It’s full of violence and has a sprinkling of nudity, and while that sells for some, it’s also an instant turn-off for others.

“Anime with broader appeal.”

“Anime that the average person will enjoy.”

I believe these to be obtainable goals, but I find that when people talk like this, they don’t necessarily want something for a wider audience, they want anime that is closer to what they enjoy most, that possess the qualities they think are most essential to great anime, or at least acceptable anime. Certainly, wanting more of what you enjoy only makes sense, but it results in conflating “broad appeal” with the tastes of the individual. Rather than something like Redline or Cowboy Bebop, maybe the answer will be the anime equivalent of The Big Bang Theory or Hannah Montana or something else far-removed from the aforementioned anime titles. Which is to say, if anime in whole or in part transformed itself to really aim for that bigger audience around the world, the result may not be what we might be expecting.

This somewhat reminds me of all of the manga creators that have been revisiting their older work. Even putting my beloved Genshiken aside, you have GTO: Shonan 14 Days and Rurouni Kenshin, among others. All of them have certain expectations associated with them because you have the original creators working on them, but when you think about it there’s no guarantee that the work will actually be all that similar. After all, artists can change given time and experience. Macross: The First is a retelling of the first series by the original character designer Mikimoto Haruhiko, who is praised especially by a certain generation of anime fans as being one of the best character designers ever. They might point to his work and say, “There, why can’t anime characters look more like that, instead of what we’re getting today?”

The only problem is, Mikimoto’s own artwork today doesn’t look like his work from the 1980s. For that matter, if you look at his stuff from between the original Macross and now, it also looks quite different.

Expectations shattered?

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19 thoughts on ““Broad Appeal?”

  1. Only if more people realizes this… I think a major issue with “state of anime” is that people don’t even realize what the problem is, precisely in the way you have described. They see something, they react, and then want something that is probably just as bad if not worse.

    If “knowing is half the battle” then we are not even half way.

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  2. A good read, this. If I were to judge ‘broad appeal’ in the same way as, say, music, I’d be rather careful about what I wish for: ‘broad appeal’ usually means ‘liked by many’ rather than ‘loved by a few’. What this often means in reality is that it’s a product that’s popular but not necessarily of high quality; conversely, something of high quality may not be hugely successful. Sometimes the reasons for failing to be successful are down to media exposure or marketing, and therefore say little about how good a product actually is.

    In terms of trying to make anime with a broad appeal, it wouldn’t be advisable I think to throw in many different elements just to make as many people to like it as possible. A production doesn’t have to ‘sell out’ or be a victim of ‘dumbing down’ to be successful anyway: a recent artlcle by a UK film critic pointed out that both the recent Transformers and Batman movies did very well at the box office, but in terms of quality they’re worlds apart; Transformers made tonnes of money and put backsides on seats, but the critical reaction was quite negative. The general gist of that article was “why be Michael Bay when you can be Christpher Nolan?”

    I suppose my rambling comment is trying to say that ‘broad appeal’ and ‘quality’ aren’t mutually exclusive, but the former is often attained at the expense of the latter. FWIW, 2011’s biggest UK anime DVD sellers were the Akira Blu-ray and the Studio Ghibli back catalogue. Make of that what you will. I personally really enjoyed Redline on its own merits (i.e. as a fun and well-made film) but the fan hype almost put me off liking it altogether.

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  3. The key to broad appeal is this – will one (or both) of your parents like it?

    There’s a reason when UK indie rock broke big in the 90s the phrase “dad rock” was bandied about. Likewise, it’s why the Flintstones hit. It’s why Tom & Jerry is eternally popular. In anime, it’s why Sazae-san and Maruko-chan have been the dominant forces they are for so long. Of your examples, Big Bang Theory definitely fits the bill. Parents are more likely to like BBT than say Community.

    While Redline might not be a “dad anime” in Japan, given when Manga broke big in the UK, it probably is one here. That is if those dads could be made aware of it – less high street retailers, less magazines, etc mean it’s harder to encounter a release casually in the same way you could in the 90s.

    Also having the same name as a shitty Fast & The Furious rip off didn’t help matters.

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  4. One might argue that K-ON! was the anime equivalent of Hannah Montana. Girls and kids loved it, while curmudgeonly geeks hated it and called it the death of culture.

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  5. I think Brack is onto something above, but I would have said that, to most people making this “broad appeal” claim, what they’re really after is “I should be able to show it to my non-anime loving friends, and they’ll come to see that anime is cool”. So shows that are action-packed, plot-driven, and feature violence with a hint of mature sexuality fit the bill because they’re not that far removed from a Hollywood blockbuster, just animated. I suppose these are the so-called “manly anime”. Deep science fiction and “art films” are also generally okay in different ways, because they present anime as a serious alternative to popular (or at least geek) culture.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, you have “shows that I’d be embarrassed to show my non-anime loving friends, because they’ll think less of me”. Any show that relies primarily on “cute” to sell is automatically out, along with things that are too quirky and too “Japanese”.

    The problem is that getting people to appreciate the former doesn’t necessarily translate into an appreciation of anime itself. Even if you bring them in the door, eventually this “broad audience” will have to face the totality of what anime is, and that will either make or break their opinion about the medium. And I think this is what causes some people to be rather insistent that the focus on Japanese niche audience is what is “killing anime”.

    Personally, I think this is all a bit of a dead-end. I suspect some people are still living the dream of the early-2000s when anime popularity was on the rise, and the idea that anime could go mainstream seemed within reach. That bubble burst long ago, but some people still cling to the hope that anime could become cool again “if only they’d just…”…

    Anime that had actual “mainstream appeal” in the U.S., anyway, were things like Afro Samurai, and collections like the Matrix and Halo anime anthologies. On the flip side, some anime fans don’t even consider these to be anime at all, because — ironically — they’re too “mainstream” (since they’re based on Western franchises or produced explicitly for Western audiences). I agree with the general conclusion of the article that most existing anime fans who say they want anime with “broad appeal” probably won’t actually enjoy what that means in practice. Again, what they really want is “shows that will make anime, and me, look cool in front of my friends”. I gave up on “looking cool” a long time ago. ^^;

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  6. Oh for fu–this isn’t chess, man. It’s checkers.

    “Broad” appeal purely refers to “culturally.” The fewer specifically “foreign” elements that are present, the more potentially “broad” the appeal.

    When I say “foreign” elements, I mean things like Japanese text on-screen, Japanese names, uniquely Japanese contemporary settings (things like say, their school system), linguistic terminology like “sempai” or honorifics/suffixes, and so on. Sometimes you can have one or two of these things, but the more “neutral” (or “Western”) the work, the more “broad” its appeal.

    Of course, appealing to “geeks with a penchant for thrills and visual spectacle” or “anime fans from previous decades” is still a broad-ER appeal than many contemporary productions, but that’s another topic.

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  7. While I think this argument hits a nerve in certain terms, I don’t think that “broader appeal” necessarily equals “mass market”. I think you’re right in the sense that most anime fans don’t really want it to be “mass market” in their heart of hearts, even if they may say so sometimes. When they say “Anime that the average person will enjoy,” they don’t really mean Joe Six-pack in Indiana, more like “people who aren’t crazy Otaku”. I would actually point to the noitaminA experiment as a better example of what the contemporary Anime fan desires in terms of the industry’s diversification. noitaminA doesn’t make things that are “mainstream”, however, it appeals to demographics broader than just Otaku. Now noitaminA hasn’t always delivered in the last few years, and maybe that’s telling in terms of these pipe-dreams, but it at least it’s the idea.

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    • Nothing’s really “wrong” with The Big Bang Theory, it was just an example of something that is quite a ways different from what’s usually touted as a “broad appeal” anime, and it might be the case that an anime like The Big Bang Theory is what it would take to get that larger audience.

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      • Do you mean that the setting of TBBT ie the American geek culture is an example of what anime would tend to be if it was aimed towards foreign countries?

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        • When you put it that way, the example I gave does seem to be a potentially flawed one, but then I’m not the marketing wizard that will change things. In any case, it was more to put forward the idea that the nature of a “broad appeal” anime might be something unexpected.

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          • I don’t know what the thought process of people asking for “broad appeal anime” as you call it is, but what I know is that anime is made by Japanese people, for Japanese people. By that paradigm, saying that the predominance of Japanese culture and concepts in anime is hindering the experience of Western viewers is pointless. On the other hand, one (me) could complain that anime uses more and more “otaku references” and memes that only otakus can decipher. It’s a minor thing most of the time (it even can be the theme, but that’s alright as long as it’s well executed) but it can render a show difficult to introduce to casual viewers.

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  8. Oddly enough, I see a parallel with the gaming scene and Nintendo.

    When Nintendo decided to move away from the hardcore audience and made the Wii, they suddenly hit the big time. Wiis were flying off the shelves. Hardcore Nintendo fans were PISSED. (And Nintendo still had long dev times for their first-party games).

    The hardcore fans said it was the end of an era. And Nintendo laughed all the way to the bank.

    I’m not quite sure if the same could be said of anime, but it does appear the same hardcore fans who loved anime in the past are taking the role of the pissed off fanboy, simpering away in their wells, looking up at the tiny wellholes.

    And if we’re gonna duel with definitions, then I’d really like to know which mainstream audience are we talking about. The Japanese mainstream, or the American mainstream? Because if we’re talking Japanese mainstream, then your late-night otaku commercials have to contend with the extended toy commercials that air at 7 in the morning (Japan time). I’m talking the latest sentai, Kamen Rider and Pretty Cure. (and before that, super robot shows and magical girl shows. Pokemon changed the anime scene when they used their cartoon to drive merch sales.)

    You must remember that anime never caters to American audiences to begin with. It’s still a Japanese cultural product, made in japan, for Japanese audiences. It’s a miracle that anime could be popular enough in the States for the Japanese companies to take notice.

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  9. At the risk of stating the obvious, perhaps it’s not (just) a case of making something with a ‘broader’ appeal, but giving it a bigger distributor? (The Studio Ghibli/ Disney partnerships of late come to mind here.) Also, I wonder to what extend such a niche medium can ever have a truly broad appeal, when so many people think of animation as simply a medium for stories for kids, or the occasional independent/ arthouse/ political project.

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  10. Violence is fine, but get rid of the nudity and the fan-service. Or if you do add it, make sure the nude person is OBVIOUSLY over 18, like Revy in Black Lagoon.

    Western culture is much more tolerant of violence than sex in media. And it’s very intolerant of potential child pornography.

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  11. Pingback: All Points Bulletin: Electric Barbarella « Reverse Thieves

  12. And if you want to talk about changing styles, the prince of earnest and bland young anime men got a big face lift

    going from hang-gliding collars

    to uh…

    yeah this was never cool, Japan

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