The Melancholy of Anime Openings

As I imagine is the case with many fans of anime, one of the first things about anime that caught my attention, one of the things that helped make me into a fan, was the quality of openings. Whether it was the music itself or the animation that accompanied it, anime openings felt like they blew the cartoon intros I was accustomed to out of the water, not to mention the dubbed anime openings which populated American TV. This is not to say that anime music is the best music ever, but once upon a time I often felt that way.

Recently I began to reflect on this feeling. What was the appeal? What was different about them? The more I think about it, the more I believe that it has to do with the sense of melancholy, angst, and forlornness that often appears briefly in anime openings.

A lot of anime openings make the viewer feel as if they are privy to the characters’ inner turmoil. In some cases, this is almost the entire point of the opening: see, for example, the “Tsubasa Cat” arc from Bakemonogatari (warning, it’s kind of not work-safe). The Galaxy Express 999 opening above doesn’t even have characters in it. In others, this feeling will be concentrated into a single, perhaps introspective moment. Think of the first Gundam W opening and Relena in the snow, or the Slayers NEXT opening when Lina reaches for Gourry. This melancholy is even mildly present in the opening to Fist of the North Star until it roars into overdrive during the chorus, accompanied by images of Lin, Bat, and the other destitute wanderers.

However, its ubiquity doesn’t end there, as it will appear in shows you might not expect to care about that sense of melancholy in the first place, such as Bistro Recipe (aka Fighting Foodons) and Medarot (aka Medabots). The openings for these anime both feature brief scenes where the main characters appear to be lost on an emotional level, despite the fact that they’re largely absurd comedies vaguely built around the concept of competition. It even shows up in one of the openings to the Japanese dub of the 1990s X-Men cartoon!

On some level, I wonder if openings might be a make-or-break moment for some as to whether or not they become anime fans. It’s the kind of thing that can easily cause someone to exclaim from the rooftops that anime is the best, or to dismiss it for not being as aggressively powerful as, say, the 1990s X-Men opening!

This is not to say that having this quality automatically makes an opening better, even if it is what likely caught my attention every time. Rather, just the fact that so many openings in a whole slew of genres utilize it at least to some extent feels like it speaks to something more deeply ingrained into, if not Japanese society, then how anime is viewed by society. Anime has gone from having openings designed specifically for the show itself to becoming vehicles to promote musical groups and back again, and consists of both shows designed for large audiences and hardcore fans, and yet somehow these melancholic moments have persisted over the years through all of these changes. I can only believe that there is a tacit assumption that anime openings, more often than not, should on some level evoke a strong sense of sympathy in the viewer, and this influences their structure.

The Aggressively Passive Protagonist

There’s a general trend I’ve been seeing with male anime protagonists from light novels, or more specifically anime adaptations of light novels. In many of these titles, the main characters tend towards having passivity as a defining trait, sometimes to the point of “aggressive passivity.” Not to be confused with someone who’s passive-aggressive, or even someone who’s mostly passive and occasionally active (like Shinji in the Evangelion TV series), the aggressively passive protagonist is someone whose passivity is almost a badge of honor, either in the form of a passive special ability, a self-image in which passivity practically defines them, or a reputation for passivity.

Let’s look at a brief list.

  • My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU: Hikigaya Hachiman persistently mentiones how the real world is harsh and unforgiving and how it’s best to kind of just coast through it with little ambition.
  • Mayo Chiki: Sakamichi Kintarou has the nickname of “Chicken Tarou,” indicating what a pushover he is, which he tries to fight.
  • A Certain Magical Index: Kamijou Touma, though not truly passive, operates on an extremely loose philosophy of “do the right thing, I guess.” In addition, his ability is a defensive one which neutralizes other superpowers.
  • Monogatari Series: Araragi Koyomi helps others out, but his abilities as a vampire mainly manifest in his ability to endure pain and injury, and even his method of active help comes across as essentially philosophically passive.
  • Ookami-san: Morino Ryoushi, Ookami’s partner, is someone who can only help fight from the shadows, as he fears direct confrontation.
  • Suzumiya Haruhi: Kyon, though he eventually enjoys it, starts off talking about how much he’d rather not be having strange and crazy adventures.

If you look, you’ll also find such characters in non-light novel anime. This is somewhat different from the classic milquetoast harem lead, whose averageness is taken as a way to make him the everyman and the avatar of the reader, because often-times with these aggressively passive characters a lot of time is spent talking about just how average they are and how being average/passive is the way to be.

I’m not sure why this is the case, but I suspect it may have something to do with the “herbivore men” concept that has taken hold in Japan. Herbivore men are defined as guys who shun the life of wealth, success, sex, and family, the classic symbols of masculinity, and embrace a more passive lifestyle which shirks society’s expectations. This trend gets tied to a number of things by those curious as to why it’s occurring, such as the poor Japanese economy driving down ambition towards employment, and it’s possible that the protagonists described above are a product of this environment, that the people reading (and perhaps even writing) these light novels and watching their anime adaptations also see the traditional path of Japanese men to be fraught with lies and deception.

Of course, in many of these cases, it’s not like the characters sit back and do nothing, but that passivity on some level becomes a part of their characters, either as something to be celebrated or something to be worked on. If anything, even the sampling of titles above speak towards a broad range of viewpoints as to what passivity is and whether or not it’s something to be embraced or to be worked on.

This trend is actually why I think Kirito in Sword Art Online has become such a popular hero for anime fans both male and female. It’s not that the aggressively passive hero is inherently bad, but that in this environment an aggressive protagonist stands out that much more. In SAO, Kirito is an extremely skilled fighter who helps the downtrodden, attracts women left and right, and has a powerful reputation among those inhabiting the world, while also being gentle, considerate, and devoted to those he loves. He becomes the exemplary light novel hero for those who’d rather not have a passive protagonist.

The Fujoshi Files 24: Kanbaru Suruga

Name: Kanbaru, Suruga (神原駿河)
Alias: Valhalla Combo (バルハラコンビ)
Relationship Status: Single
Origin: Bakemonogatari

Kanbaru Suruga is the basketball ace of Naoetsu Private High School who in junior high was part of the “Valhalla Combo,” a designation given to her and track star Senjougahara Hitagi (by herself) for their athletic abilities. A quick runner and capable of even delivering dunks, Her friendship with Senjougahara wanes after junior high due to a sudden change in Hitagi’s personality, as well as Kanbaru’s own confession towards her being rejected. The negative effects of this rejection are compounded when Kanbaru discovers in high school that Hitagi had begun dating one Araragi Koyomi.

Kanbaru’s most distinguishing visual feature is her bandaged left arm, which hides the furry demonic limb of a “Rainy Devil.” Originally mistaking it for a monkey’s paw, the arm still grants her wishes, only it fulfills her darkest desires instead of what she says aloud, and often does so violently. Its power is only subdued when the demon in her arm’s contract cannot be fulfilled.

Despite the seriousness of her situation, Kanbaru is quite forward and cheerful. She also identifies herself as being something of a pervert, being a self-admitted lesbian, fujoshi, exhibitionist, lolicon, and masochist.

Fujoshi Level:
Kanbaru’s room is filled with so many books that they take up the vast majority of space. Though it is unclear just how many books are BL and how many cater to her other tastes, it is a good indicator that her ability to collect and consume yaoi is nothing short of astonishing.


Today it occurred to me that there is more to Bakemonogatari than what’s on the surface. No, I’m not talking about the occult subject matter or the Nisio Isin writing which can give even Japanese people pause, or even that Shinbo touch that the director puts into most of his works. Instead, what I’m referring to is the way Bakemonogatari treats otaku, or more broadly, anime and manga fans.

Now I want to ask, who in Bakemonogatari is an anime fan? The answer is no one and everyone. In this story, everyone is able to just mention obscure manga titles and make equally esoteric references with the assumption that somebody else out there will get them, almost like how everyone in Beyblade knows about tops.

Within the confines of its own story, Bakemonogatari normalizes the otaku, something that is exceedingly rare. In titles about otaku such as Genshiken and Mousou Shoujo Otakukei, the otaku is still seen as something special or at least different. Other works take aspects of reality and soften them through layers of otaku filters. Bakemonogatari on the other hand assumes otaku to be the starting point and moves the story forward from there, adding in all of those supernatural elements.

It’s kind of like how superhero comics are traditionally a power fantasy, taking the real world and making it a little more fantastic, but titles like Watchmen take the fantasy and inject reality back in. Not that I’m comparing Alan Moore to Nisio Isin, mind you.

2000-2009 Part 2: Looking Forward

Make Way for the New Generations


Anime and manga continue to change and develop, becoming at times almost unrecognizable from what they once were in the past. Having first taken a broad (but also detailed) look at the significant parts of the decade of anime and manga from 2000-2009, I think it is only appropriate that we also look ahead. As such, I have written out a number of topics pertaining to where I think anime and manga will go in the coming years. They’re half-predictions, half-observations, and all things that I think people should watch out for.

The First Digital Generation

In the previous part, I discussed how the advent of digital animation is one of the biggest markers of the current decade of anime and that anime is affected by this switch. One vital point to consider is the likelihood of a generational shift. In about 20 years or so we are going to see an entire generation of adults in Japan (and around the world) who have grown up primarily on digital animation. When you consider the level to which nearly all people in and out of the industry still look fondly back towards the anime of their youth (or from the time they discovered anime), the style that has begun to grow out of digital animation is likely going to have a profound impact on where anime goes, especially as that first digital generation grows older and the cel generations die off.

Over time, I think that the peculiarities of digital animation, such as the computer-based shortcuts, will become part of the style itself, but less direct about it than, say, Studio SHAFT’s current output, and not necessarily influenced by Shinbo’s work either. But if there are any, they will be making in-jokes and references about the early, nostalgic days of digital animation and not light boxes and such.

SHAFT’s Bakemonogatari is a hint of where anime may go in 20 years.

For better or worse, as a new range of ideas and techniques emerge, parts of animation technique and philosophy born out of cel-based anime will fade away, perhaps forever. After all, Miyazaki can’t live forever.

Flash Animation

In this decade the US animation industry has embraced Flash Animation as a way to reduce cost, particularly by eliminating the need for animation teams in South Korea and other places to do everything for you, as well as being able to create works domestically without incurring the exorbitant costs required to animate things traditionally in the US. The results have been mixed, as Flash as a program lends itself to “flat” animation.

In light of the anime industry’s history of low budgets, I think that more companies, be they animation studios, broadcasters, or otherwise, will start to look at Flash as a viable method to keep things low-cost and at-home. Now I don’t think it will eliminate today’s more “traditional” animation, especially when it comes to bigger-name, bigger-budget works, but it will be an appealing tool for those middle-of-the-road shows, and shows for kids. We’re already kind of seeing it with something like Shugo Chara Party!, where one of the segments feels very much like a flash animation.

There are two key points here. First, is that I do not think, if Japan starts to use Flash more regularly, that they will utilize the same methods the US does, particularly because US animation is generally characterized by lots of movement and Japanese animation is not. Also, I think that animators will be trying to apply their existing principles to flash, rather than trying to master the “science” of it. Second, this will create another bridge between the industry and the internet, where flash animations come out of 2channel periodically and some achieve terrific success. The main challenge from there will be pushing the limits of flash animation in terms of how successfully the visuals can be used to convey a story, as well as the breadth and depth of the subjects explored.

“How effectively can stories be told in this format?”

Changing Views on Hikikomori and NEETs

The chronic shut-in known as the “hikikomori” is a topic that Japan for the past decade has been in debate over, and as with the “NEETs” and the “Freeters” and so on, the focus has been on the future and fate of Japan, especially when factoring in the shrinking Japanese population and the fear that arises from that scenario. “Why aren’t these people going out and making something of themselves? Why aren’t they growing up?” Essays and news reports and even anime, manga, and light novels have been made of the topic, with Welcome to the NHK providing prominent examples of the last three.

But the reality of the economy is such that not having a good job (or a job at all), living at home, and having your parents’ support will be an increasingly common sight. Some will become hikikomori and try to close themselves off from the world, but there may be a sizable group that is only partially hikikomori, who will not completely lose their ability to interact with others or to engage in meaningful activity, and they will have a cultural and social “pulling” effect on the full-blown hikikomori. In turn, those “full hikikomori” may drag some down with them.

Writings on hikikomori will evolve.

The result may be that Japan’s view on the hikikomori and the NEET, especially in the face of having these groups increase in size, will be a mixture of greater panic and greater relief as they will fret once again that this is potentially very dangerous for Japan, while the internet will provide this larger hikikomori population with the group setting in line with Japanese ideas of “group,” where the interactions between partial hikikomori and full hikikomori will take place.

Thematic Responses to the Economy

The anime industry, much like every other industry, is feeling the sting of the poor economy but also has the sting of disappointment and high expectations from the US and other markets. The result is that production of anime is feeling the squeeze, with reduced budget and staff and less wiggle room for creativity. All in all, anime is being affected on a technical level by the world economy. In a certain sense however, this is only the beginning.

In about three to five years, I predict that we will begin to see both anime and manga which address the idea of global recession itself and incorporate it into the themes and settings in these works, to have it become a concept that is to be explored, whether directly or indirectly. Evangelion and other shows were responses to the recession that befell Japan starting in the early 90s, and I don’t think it would be unusual for an international economic downturn to have a similar effect.

Money will matter on more than a practical level.

Some works will be more explicit about the topic, and probably mention governments and businessmen who played roulette with the world’s economy, or businesses which had too much hubris, while others will be Silent Service-style “what ifs” but for the economy. There will also be shows which are more subtle about these elements or will have them as part of the background.

The New Escapes

Fiction, even realistic fiction, is often an escape, and over the course of anime and manga’s histories we have seen the idea of the “escape” take on many forms. More recently, escape has been manifested through the idea of “moe” and all that it entails. Moe however, like every other genre of anime, cannot last at the forefront forever, and in time new escapes will appear. Some of them may resemble older trends, but they will all ultimately still be ways to not approach reality head-on.

There are two basic forms to “escapism.” The first is a type of introverted escapism, that is, to become increasingly insular. The second is an extroverted escapism, where you want to project outwards, to go beyond yourself. Almost all genres have both to some extent in different ratios. Moe for example is very insular in the sense that it seems to want to keep characters and emotions isolated in time, but is also somewhat extroverted in that these shows are generally trying to portray the strong emotions of other characters and the ideal of being able to see these qualities at the forefront.

In that sense, I think that in the near future the escapism for anime and manga will be increasingly introverted, but will soon give way to a more extroverted form as a response to the desires of more and more fans who want to be released into other worlds. Though I don’t think that anime and manga will be reaching that early period where stories tended to feel very “epic,” I think we will see a lot of stories about worlds with wide scope focused through the lens of personal characterization, and in a way in which the former affects the latter significantly and vice versa.

Many series will try to balance daily life with a greater world.

Increased International Integration in Collaborative Efforts

Like all companies, manga publishers want to increase profit every year, and at some point a decade or three ago, Japan began to realize that one direction they had not gone was to appeal to people outside of their fanbase and readership. The classic example at this point is Shounen Jump, which noticed that it had developed a sizable female audience, and so made the move to start releasing series that are designed for female readers (without driving the boys away, of course). The result is Jump‘s approximately 50% female readership.

But then I recalled something Ed Chavez, currently of Vertical Inc. and formally of Kodansha, has said on multiple occasions: The “problem” with the Japanese manga industry today is that it has no room to grow in the nation itself. For all intents and purposes, the Japanese market has been saturated, as manga selling a million copies is completely normal and the fact that there’s pretty much something for everyone.

The only way to go then is outside of Japan, but the problem facing the industry there is that it’s difficult to pinpoint the manga-reading audience for different cultures and nationalities around the world. The same thing applies to the anime industry, which has been trying to really grow outwards for a while but lost its footing along the way. The tricky part in all this is that anime and manga have to achieve a certain level of distinctness, but still have to be familiar enough that people are comfortable with the material, and this is something that is even more of a challenge to achieve when the people making the work are unfamiliar with the culture they’re trying to attract. Naruto, Bleach, and Dragon Ball Z are pretty much the most popular things out there for boys in the US, and when you think about it they’re not that different from American superheroes.

This is why I predict that over the next decade and beyond, we will be seeing collaborations on animation and comics where the staff producing these works will be much more closely integrated. International collaboration isn’t new to manga and especially not to anime, but the work is usually cleanly divided between the countries involved. So it’ll be less Gurihiru drawing for Marvel’s Power Pack and more Oban Star Racers. This way they have a better chance of hitting that cultural sweet spot, though nothing is guaranteed and there’s going to be some serious misses as a result of trying to mix two cultures together at the base level of production.

French and Japanese Collaboration Oban Star Racers

Incidentally, by necessity translators will have to be more closely involved in the process as well.

Age Demographics in Japan vs Age Demographics Abroad

Anime and manga in the US has had a contradictory reputation for the longest time, being viewed both as “cartoons for children” and “raunchy pornography.” These days however, if we were to look at the fandom we would know the truth: In the US, anime and manga are primarily for teenagers with both childish and adult elements in different proportions, and it’s been this way for a number of years now. One concern I’ve seen from people is that they fear that a lot of these works, particularly in manga, will never get brought over here because they will simply never have an audience. And to an extent they’re right, but I believe that in time the manga audience in the US will slowly mature and eventually reach a point where they want something that is more in-line with how they feel about entertainment, their lives, and the world at large.

The key however will be whether or not Japan realizes that age demographics do not map one-to-one between Japan and the US. Not all “seinen” works will appeal to an older audience, and they will have to somehow find a way to understand just what this slightly more matured manga-seeking audience is looking for, possibly through the greater international collaboration I mentioned earlier.

Seinen may become more “shounen-friendly.”

Josei in Japan went through a similar growing pain in that it tried to be more “adult” in certain ways until creators and editors realized that older women still want the shoujo series trappings of their youth, but with more mature concerns and characterizations. In time, I think Japan and the US will get a better handle on it, but it won’t come without some serious bumps in the road capable of taking a company or three under.

Multimedia Customization

When it comes to streaming anime, you can’t please everyone, and methods of distribution and how to turn those view counts into sales is a mystery which eludes even big sites like Hulu, let alone smaller players like Funimation or Crunchyroll. While streaming anime is a step in the right direction, anime finds itself to some extent in the same bind as scanlations: sometimes people want to actually own a hard copy for themselves. However, the cost of printing DVDs for a series that won’t sell can be prohibitively expensive, meaning even if you really like Saki, unless someone decides to pick up the license to produce a box set you’re not going to have it sitting pretty on your bookshelf.

People outside of Japan will be able to own Saki however they want.

I think that starting in the next few years this is all going to start changing until we reach a point of personal customization in our anime and manga: You will be able to make exactly the purchase you want with exactly the things that you want, on-demand. As an example, let’s say it’s 2015 and you’re watching a streaming video of the latest series New Mobile Fighter G Gundam: Second Generation. Sadly the show has no box set you can buy in stores, but you still really want to own it. What you’ll be able to do is specify just how you want to have it in your possession, and you will get that package. Do you want it on blu-ray or DVD? Do you want to shove all the episodes onto fewer discs, cutting out the extras and possibility some of the quality? Do you want to just download the episodes so you can watch them without relying on internet access? Do you want to also purchase merchandise for Neo-Japan’s “Typhoon Gundam?” You will be able to get what you want, weighing cost versus extras, and in a way that doesn’t just limit you to “Normal,” “Super Deluxe,” and “Bare Bones” packs.

Choice is the future.

New Paths for New Talent to Appear

Shinkai Makoto made a big splash on the anime industry when he released Voices of a Distant Star, a science fiction-themed OVA which he wrote, directed, and animated all by himself on his Macintosh back in 2002. More recently, Aniplex has introduced the world to Cencoroll, by another independent writer/director/animator named Uki Atsuya. The idea of the Anime Renaissance Man is appealing, but it’s something that people cannot expect all the time. Skilled creators can be born independently, but it’s clear from Shinkai’s example that, given proper resources and experience, even a genius has room to improve.

Works like Cencoroll will continue to be rare, but lessons can be learned.

I think anime is heading in a direction where people won’t have to be skilled at every aspect of animation production to be considered a Big Deal. One possibiliy I’ve thought of is “anime festivals” for amateur creators, be they industry-sponsored or independent, with competitions and awards for categories such as storyboarding and writing in addition to full-on animations. More importantly however, these anime festivals could take place entirely online.

The primary advantage of having festivals be online would be low overhead costs, and in this age of streaming video (which will only get more efficient over time) people will be able to see each others’ works and comment on them, possibly through chat rooms or Nico-style scrolling text. This will also encourage people to send in works from abroad, as they would be on an equal footing of sorts with those living in Japan, and would be able to enjoy seeing the results all the same. Of course this is not to say that online animation festivals would replace actual ones, but the ease of setting one up would make it an attractive prospect, and it would give amateurs opportunities to be noticed.

Manga too will start to have online festivals. There is already the International Manga Competition, but these will be a little more like Comic Market on the Internet, and will have a lot less pornography. The same idea applies however, in that people will be able to enter in a variety of categories and not just “Overall Excellent Manga Creator.” It’s not so much specialization as it is realizing again that not everyone talented is multi-talented.


Although I have written all of these ideas of the future of anime and manga, I of course do not pretend to be a soothsayer and cannot guarantee that any of my predictions will come true. I’ve always been better at observing the past than predicting the future, and I know my views on anime and manga are tinged by a certain degree of optimism, so in time we will all see  just what I was able to sense correctly and what was just my wishful thinking.

Still, I think that even if I get everything concrete wrong, every single item I’ve written about is something to consider and analyze further as anime and manga reach into the next decade.The main themes I’ve discussed are the ways in which the industry and the fans will handle the significant changes to the economy that have occurred, shifts in philosophy on the creation of anime itself, and new steps towards customizing and tailoring for audiences. Taken all together along with the advancement of technology in society, and even if I’m wrong I think that my ideas all have more than a few kernels of relevance to them.

So let’s approach 2010 with open arms, not so much to simply accept whatever anime and manga may come, but to give the same consideration of the past that we do the future, and to know that no matter how it might change they are still capable of inspiring.