2010–2019 Part 3: Looking Forward

Having reviewed my predictions for the 2010s and looked back on the decade as a whole, it’s time to try and peer into the future of anime and manga in the 2020s!

Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has already affected Japan in different ways, from the moving of the historic Tsukiji Market to the heavier policing of manga content. Like with any Olympics, there’s a desire to put forward the best possible appearance to the world. In the short term, there is most definitely going to be an effect on anime and manga production, as studios and artists are either hired to hype up the Olympics or do it of their own volition. It’s sad that Kyoto Animation, originally poised to contribute with a new Free! movie to highlight competitive swimming, won’t be making it short of a miracle. I predict there’s going to be some Olympics-mania fatigue, but not enough to make a big dent in the overall attitude at first.

I do have a long-shot prediction, though: Japan is going to do surprisingly well in some unexpected event, and it’s going to kick off a mini-boom in anime and manga. Whenever Japan achieves in a sport, there’s a strong chance that manga and anime are either pushing for the sport or are a response to succeed—volleyball in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Japan’s recent success in rugby are two examples. I’m not going to try to guess what event will trigger this trend, but I’m cheering for Greco-Roman wrestling.

Fighting Climate Change as a Core Theme

The Earth is not in a great place. Scientists are warning that if nothing is done in the next few years, climate change will send us toward long-term and lasting changes that will affect everything. While not perfect, Japan is very environmentally conscious in many respects, and is a major player in the Paris Climate Accord. There are even little things like “Cool Biz,” a public awareness campaign for companies to encourage better energy efficiency by reducing air conditioner usage and having its employees dress in more heat-friendly suits.

To that end, I think there are going to be more and more anime and manga centered around environmentalism. Also, they will primarily exist in two areas: super mainstream-popular anime films and kids’ shows. So someone like Shinkai Makoto is going to hit the subject of saving the environment full steam, and I feel pretty confident that there’s going to be an environmentalist Precure at some point in the next ten years. I don’t know what effect this will have, but if anime tourism can merge with saving our planet in some way, then maybe there’s hope.

Hardening of Shounen Protagonists

There’s a certain kind of shounen protagonist that’s been popular lately: the “good boy.” These heroes are gentle and kind-hearted, though never lacking in bravery or perseverance—think Sei from Gundam Build Fighters, Tanjiro from Demon Slayer, or Sakamichi from Yowamushi Pedal. But as positive an effect as I think this is having, I feel like there’s going to be a backlash at some point. At some point, hard and angry heroes will come into the limelight (albeit temporarily) as a kind of reaction to the softer heroes we’ve been seeing in the 2010s.

It’s not just that angry rival characters have their own dedicated fanbases (and thus would probably enjoy a story centered around them), or that Eren Yeager from Attack on Titan is a walking rage factory, but that their attitudes and focus on power have a primal appeal that’s hard to deny. While I don’t think we’ll ever quite get back to the ultimate convergence point between compassion and violence—Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star—I predict we’re going to see the soft hero and the hard hero archetypes flip back and forth from one series to the next. In other words, in the future, there will be a time when the “Bakugos” of the world take center stage and the “Dekus” will be the rivals.

More Diverse Body Expression

In the past ten years, I think we’ve seen a greater range of body types, especially with female characters. It’s true that a good deal of it veers hard into fetish territory, but even so, there have been many moves towards broadening notions of beauty. Attack on Titan both showed the world an anime heroine with a six pack in Mikasa Ackerman and pushed a gender nonbinary character in Hange Zoe. Pochamani centered on a bigger girl as a shoujo heroine. Even something as simple as big butts being attractive in Japan is a relatively recent phenomenon.

I think this diversity will only continue to increase because more and more, people will start to assert that their standards for attractiveness and self-identity don’t have to be beholden to what society traditionally says is okay. More and more artists and creators will be inspired to make works of their own, and enough of them will achieve success that it’ll encourage the producers and publishers themselves to go even further. The only caveat is that I think both the normalizing and the fetishizing will ramp up, and this may cause some conflict as a result.

The New Power Fantasy

Power fantasies are practically part and parcel with media as a whole, and anime and manga are most certainly included. However, I think we may be seeing a trend towards power fantasies that are less about escapism and more about fighting the feeling of powerlessness. The new power fantasy won’t just be about getting the girl and living in another world where your knack for video games gives you the edge, but rather about being able to exert lasting change on a world that seems immovable. To this end, I think we’re going to be seeing a heavier mingling of the power fantasy genres that permeate anime and manga today: harem, isekai, American-style superheroes, Japanese-style superheroes, and more. People will want to be inspired and not just placated—especially when it comes to the younger generations.

Greater Acknowledgement of Production Conditions and Gender Inequality

Through projects like the Animator Dormitories and news articles on animator wages, the 2010s end with at least some awareness that the people who make our beloved anime often don’t even have enough to put food on the table. It’s a decades-long problem—Miyazaki blames Tezuka for the current status quo—but I think the next decade might just be a turning point. I don’t know if it’ll ever reach mainstream awareness given that lots of people prefer not to know how their hot dogs are made, but I think that new sources of funding may create greater vocal desire to see wages change, especially if all that profit isn’t going to the workers themselves.

Similarly, we’ve seen more and more women this decade in prominent positions—writer Okada Mari and director Yamamoto Sayo are a couple of prominent examples. There’s still a ways to go before women directors and such will be commonplace, but I think that the women of today will be role models for the next generation. The Kyoto Animation tragedy is an unfortunate setback given their dedication to paying workers fairer wages, but I am somewhat optimistic that things will get better regardless overall.

Let’s See What the Future Holds

In some ways, I feel these predictions (and how they differ from the predictions of ten years ago) reflect not just where the anime and manga industries are in 2019 but also where I personally am at this point in life. If somehow Ogiue Maniax reaches 2029, I’ll be glad to reflect on where everything will be. Hopefully we’ll all be in a better place.

There’s actually one more 2010–2019 post left, so I hope you’re looking forward to Part 4!

 

Shounen Sports and Girl Appeal

I’ve been watching two shounen anime adaptations as of late, Yowamushi Pedal and Kuroko’s Basketball. The former runs in Weekly Shounen Champion, the latter in Weekly Shounen Jump. When you look the contents of each series, it’s almost obvious, as if they embody the general direction each magazine has taken, but not in a way which denies either their contemporary nature or their shounen-ness.

In this age where the definition of shounen manga has been in flux, Shounen Champion is the most primary source of classic, old-fashioned shounen manga where a boy does his best to fight and improve. It fits the basic goal of that magazine quite well, which is to be a boys’ magazine for boys, though Yowamushi Pedal isn’t without its modern flairs, including having a more handsome rival for the main character.

Shounen Jump on the other hand is arguably the mainstream boys’ magazine which has embraced its female audience the most, outside of Jump variations which specifically target that audience. Kuroko’s Basketball, like Prince of Tennis before it, is filled with good-looking guys handsomely showing their best. Even if they’re not fujoshi, there’s a clear appeal to girls in it, though overall the series still has in common with Yowamushi Pedal the thrill of sports and competition.

One thing that both series share is the female manager archetype, who more broadly fits into the “knowledgeable supporter” role as well. The idea is that, while they’re not participants in the main activity of each series, they bring an enthusiasm and a set of knowledge that helps the reader understand the sport better while also acting as a cheerleader for the main character and maybe providing a bit of eye candy, though I don’t think either Miki from Yowamushi Pedal or Riko from Kuroko’s Basketball are quite the characters you’d go to for cheesecake. At the same time, I think there’s a certain substantial difference between Miki and Riko, which is that Miki is clearly a love interest for the main character, whereas Riko if she has any romantic involvement at all is with a side character in the series.

I think the fact that Riko is not a love interest, and arguably that Kuroko’s Basketball has no main female love interest for its main character at all (Momo is ostensibly one but her connection to Aomine seems stronger) speaks a lot to the difference in their magazines.  I don’t think this just has to do with Kuroko’s Basketball having a fujoshi fanbase which prefers pairing the guys together, either. If anything, I get an almost shoujo manga-esque impression of Riko’s relationship with Hyuuga and Teppei due to their interactions, not in the sense of hearts and sparkles in the background, but from its use of Riko as a character in her own right.

Stand Aside, Book Smarts: The “Knowledgeable Girl”

While reading the Drops of God recently. I took notice of the supporting character Miyabi, a sommeliere-hopeful who assists the hero Shizuku, bolstering his seemingly supernatural sense of taste (literally tasting things with his mouth) with a larger knowledge of the wine world. In this setting, Shizuku’s genius, though achieved through years of work and forced training, comes across as of a deeper quality than Miyabi’s superior book smarts.

Miyabi falls into a character type I might refer to as the “Knowledgeable Girl,” a trope I see most often in shounen manga. This character is different from someone who’s simply smart or studious or is a bookworm. Instead, it is the character who seems to play two roles: the first is to have a solid foundation of knowledge so as to be useful when exposition is necessary, and the second is to have that knowledge contrasted with the hero’s more impressive abilities, as if to say that, while the hero lacks conventional knowledge, he is such a radical that he can overcome it, or that it’s only a matter of time before he picks up that knowledge as well. In a way, she is meant to be surpassed.

Probably the most prominent example I can think of is Sakura from Naruto, who, like Miyabi, criticizes the male hero for not knowing the basics, and whose book smarts are ultimately shown to be less powerful and important than the unique flavors Naruto himself provides. I bet you can think of many others as well.

I don’t think this is a character type doomed to mediocrity, as the key, I feel, is to actually give a true advantage to book smarts, something that just isn’t waiting to be trivialized. Female coach Riko from Kuroko’s Basketball (AKA THE BASKETBALL WHICH KUROKO PLAYS), for example, while very much in that supporting role, at least shows a strategic knack owing to her intense study lacking in the players. Tokine in Kekkaishi, more knowledgeable than her counterpart Yoshimori, is better at refining her abilities than at simply making things bigger and more powerful.

I wonder if it’s possible to argue that no character type is truly terrible and that it’s all in the execution? I’m sure I’ll be corrected rather immediately.

Heel is Showing

Shounen, particularly Shounen battle manga, is probably the most well-known type of manga today. In it you have your Dragon Ball‘s, your Naruto‘s, your Kenichi‘s. You have good shounen fighting series, you have bad or mediocre shounen fighting series, and you have ones that start off as one but gradually turn into the other.  I won’t say which is which, and the above titles are not respective examples of each category.

The odd thing about the descent in quality in a lot of shounen series (or even titles which are already poor from the start) is that the same mistakes seem to happen over and over again. The most prominent mistake is that long stretch where the series just drags on and the series appears to have lost all direction. Why does this happen? That’s the thought I want to get at today.

There are certain essential characteristics for a modern shounen battle manga. You need a main character to whom the young boy readers can relate but whom they can also idolize. You need a rival or at least a series of antagonists to continually provide challenges to the hero and to act as measuring sticks for the hero’s progress. And of course you need fighting and lots of it, or at least the story’s concept of “fighting,” even if it’s throwing chickens off of rooftops to see which one flies the furthest. And then you need that extra X-factor, the thing which makes a series different (but not too different). With few exceptions, I think that shounen fighting series have to capture a feeling of action, excitement, and change, and it starts from essentials such as these.

However, I think these same ingredients for success are also what potentially drag titles down to the depths, acting as the hand which dipped Achilles into the River Styx, simultaneously giving a series its strengths but also establishing its weaknesses. As a series continues, it becomes more difficult to maintain those qualities in the right proportions and to also incorporate all of the elements which exist between those essentials. After a while, because the people behind these manga and anime are well aware that their readers look to them for certain specific things, the series start to run on auto-pilot, and that is where the seams start to really show.

For example, I think this is why the most painful filler tends to be the fight which lasts for seemingly an eternity. The manga’s staff know that they need a hefty amount of combat in their series, but they don’t quite have the vision at that point to guide the battles, to have them work towards a definite direction which inspires the readers. As a result, they stall. Battles which should have lasted two volumes last ten. Here, a quick breather chapter or two might solve the problem, but that small break might be unacceptable for a series which relies so much on continuous battles which mark the characters’ progress.

You sometimes  get people who criticize shounen fighting manga for being shounen fighting manga, hating these series for the very same reason people love them. But to some extent they have a very valid opinion, as even those things that the people who follow shounen series list as positives can eventually lead to the negatives.

Towards the Other: To Terra…

Introduction

This look at Takemiya Keiko’s 1970s shounen manga To Terra… is inspired by the “Manga Moveable Feast,” an ongoing project dedicated to having a variety of manga-passionate minds discuss a specific title. I owe a lot to To Terra…, and have been wanting to talk about it for a long time, and I believe that this is my best opportunity. I’ve included a synopsis of the story to make for easy reading, but this month’s MMF host, Kate Dacey, has written an incredibly informative introduction to To Terra…, and I really do recommend that you read it, whether it’s before, after, or even during my post.

Personal History

My very first experience with Takemiya Keiko’s To Terra… came in the form of Frederik Schodt’s book, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Animation. Displaying a single page on the margins of that book as an example of science fiction manga, the image of a young boy moving through what appeared to be a futuristic network of clear tunnels was like a visual shock, telling me that there was more to the anime and manga that I loved than the few shows I had seen. “Toward the Terra,” as its title was originally translated, had me not only wishing to someday see this series but also to look more closely at anime and manga as a whole. and it all came from an image.

That was in 2000, and it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally got to see for myself what To Terra… was all about. After the initial shock of actually seeing To Terra… in the bookstore, I picked up the first volume, consumed it, and finished the saga as the rest of the series came out. As I look at the series again, however, I become more and more aware of its influence on future manga artists, and though I cannot trace the exact path from Takemiya to the creators of today, I want to talk about the connecting threads that are visible to me.

Synopsis

To Terra… takes place in a time when man has polluted the Earth (Terra) almost beyond habitability and has moved into space. Their goal is to slowly re-cultivate the planet over many generations, but in order to ensure that humans do not repeat their past mistakes and let their greed and unchecked emotions overwhelm their need to save Earth, humans have turned to computers to regulate their lives. One tragedy that comes from this “Superior Domination” or “S.D. Era” is the fact that the “Mu,” children with ESP who are able to resist some of the programming that all “normal” humans receive, are perceived as a threat and thus eliminated in order to preserve the integrity of the new society. Through all of this, a 14 year old boy named Jomy Marcus Shin becomes the bridge between the humans and the Mu and eventually a revolutionary, discovering the truths and lies behind Superior Domination and Terra itself.

Thoughts

One of the first aspects of To Terra… that throws people off is the fact that To Terra… is indeed a shounen title, even if Takemiya is more well-known for her work in shoujo. To Terra… was written for boys, and it shows in many ways. It is a science fiction epic full of action and intrigue, spanning a long period of time, skipping years between parts. Jomy himself is portrayed as having a lot of power and potential but also as extremely unrefined in those respects, qualities you see even in today’s shounen protagonists such as Uzumaki Naruto and Sumimura Yoshimori (Kekkaishi). But the shoujo influence is still there, and though I cannot say this with 100% accuracy, I truly do feel that Takemiya’s shoujo experience manifests itself in To Terra… in a way which paves the road for many of the shounen titles which have followed it.

While the most obvious sign of Takemiya’s experience in the genre of “girls comics” may be the expressive art style so indicative of 70s manga for girls, the shoujo influence can be felt much more profoundly in the way that To Terra… makes you very aware of the relationships between characters. This is not meant in the romantic sense, though some of the closeness between the mostly male cast could be interpreted as such, but in the way the characters are portrayed relative to each other. As you read To Terra…, you are constantly aware of the differences in philosophy and overall outlook on life that characters possess, the parallels that exist between them in terms of history and personality, and anything that really makes you notice that To Terra… is a personal story about people existing alongside other people, even if it is steeped in a grand narrative.

The heavy emphasis on relationships was rare then for shounen manga, and it is still somewhat rare today, but you can see  great number of titles that, even for the briefest of moments, take a play from the book of To Terra… and have you thinking less about battle and competition and more about the interplay between two individuals, from the early banter between Ichigo and Rukia in Bleach, to the works of authors such as Adachi Mitsuru (Touch!, Cross Game) and Takahashi Rumiko (Ranma 1/2, Inuyasha).

Again, I cannot tell you if any of these creators actually looked directly to Takemiya Keiko for inspiration, but I do believe that the example she set in To Terra… nudged shounen manga along the path that would unite it with many of the facets of shoujo manga and vice versa. Though we think of the fusion of genres in manga as being a relatively recent thing, To Terra… shows that it has been a long process, and personally speaking I believe we are the better for it.

Female Characters in Shounen Fighting Series and the Meaning of “Strength”

Sometimes when discussing shounen fighting series, there are disagreements among fans as to what female characters are considered “strong” and which are considered “weak.” Someone will accuse one female character of being “useless,” while another will point out all that she’s done to help the good guys, and that she’s strong in her own way. While opinions may be opinions, I think that the nature of shounen fighting series makes it difficult for those types of characters.

Hokuto no Ken is a classic example of a series with female characters who are “strong-but-not-really.” Mamiya is a skilled fighter and trains hard to keep up in a world of mutant thugs armed with only a crossbow and some yo-yo’s, but she’s still a few tiers below Kenshiro and Friends. Yuria has great will and even greater compassion, but she’s not a fighter at all, and in this series, as strong as Kenshiro’s own compassion is, fist to face action is at the forefront.

And as much as I like Hyuuga Hinata from Naruto, and as much as I think she is an excellent character, I know that she is not meant to be one of those female characters who is actually able to keep up with the guys when the chips are down. And in fact, as far as I can tell, despite the fact that Naruto is full of skilled kunoichi, there are only two or three female characters in that series who can actually fight on an even keel with the guys: Tsunade, Temari, and maybe Kurenai. Sakura definitely had the potential, and was supposed to end up as being super strong and super determined, but she too has fallen victim to the Shounen Side Heroine Syndrome.

But being physically weaker or lacking in skills compared to the main hero and the guys doesn’t mean a female character will necessarily be “weak.” Nami and Nico Robin from One Piece are both excellent examples of characters who carry their own weight. And even before Nami gets the Clima-Tact and starts participating in battles, her skills are shown to be indispensable to the team. Another good example of a female character who uses the skills that she has and contributes immensely to the overall cause is Tokine from Kekkaishi. Tokine, while not capable of as much sheer “brute strength” as her male counterpart Yoshimori, is able to use her finesse to not only match him but often outperform him.

“But wait, weren’t you the one who talked about how great it is when characters accomplish things at their own pace? Isn’t that one of the great appeals of moe? And aren’t you a supporter of moe?” And you would be right on that, but again I must say that it has to do with the fact that shounen fighting series inevitably revolve around fighting or at the very least getting characters to a point at which they can fight. Basically, the moe series will define strength within the context of their series as overcoming a small adversity which is difficult for them in particular, while a shounen fighting series is all about displays of strength, even if they are fueled by friendship and honor.

The big, essential difference between the Sakura/Mamiya group and the Nami/Tokine group is “results.” Both groups of female characters might not have as much raw skill or ability or training or whatever as the guys do, but one of those groups gets things done. Nami and Tokine don’t just contribute to the overall goal by doing something like blocking the villain’s attack just that one vital moment so that the hero can get in the final shot, but instead actually accomplish significant goals, things that can move the story along. It’s not even that they simply defeat opponents that the others cannot, but that they will do what it takes to win.

This doesn’t even necessarily apply to female characters. All you need to to do is take a look at Usopp from One Piece as a good example of a character who fights with what he has. It’s just that this is often the situation in which female characters find themselves, and often it’s done so that the guys can come in and go, “Stand aside, ladies. It’s MAN TIME.”

…Which is not necessarily a bad thing either, as having the men be strongest in a series for boys makes all sorts of sense. It’s just that if someone’s looking for female characters who really pull their weight to accomplish an overall goal, they may end up disappointed as a result. Though not a shounen fighting series, Legend of the Galactic Heroes can often seem like a sausage fest despite a plethora of genuinely well-written, strong, and clever female characters because of the fact that none of them are out there commanding ships and fleets, i.e. the very activity that is at the absolute forefront of LoGH.

Again, I like a lot of female characters who might not be the best or the strongest but try their best to do what they can even if they can’t keep up with the boys, characters who do things their own way at their own pace. However, even if a series actually says explicity, “This girl is truly strong because she really tried and her help, however small, was essential for victory,” within the context of shounen fighting “strength” is more defined by the overall setup and themes of the story, and rarely is any amount of lip-service enough to make the readers truly think otherwise.

Avoiding the Shounen Power Creep

Shounen fighting is quite possibly the world’s most popular anime and manga sub-genre. Whether it’s Saint Seiya in South America, Naruto in the US, One Piece in Japan, or Dragon Ball around the world, the idea of heroes fighting villains and getting stronger along the way is an idea just about any boy in any country can understand and get behind. But one of the common problems with shounen is the idea of the “power creep,” where newer and more powerful villains keep appearing to challenge the hero to the point that the earlier villains who once appeared legitimately threatening begin to look pathetic by comparison. Tao Pai Pai in Dragon Ball may have been one of the few capable of defeating Goku early on, but by the time Goku turns Super Saiyan 3 the assassin is little more than a distant memory.

I think all shounen fighting series creators are well aware of this danger, but only some try to circumvent it, at least temporarily. As such I’ve included a few examples of attempts to quell the Power Level beast.

The first two series of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure had some degree of power creep, but starting with the third and most popular series starring Kujou Joutarou the series became about outwitting the opponent instead of outpowering them. Here, characters were given their own power sets which changed little to none over the course of the entire series, and all advancements came from figuring out new ways to use abilities already known to the readers, instead of acquiring entirely new powers.

Hokuto no Ken saw fit to make its main hero Kenshiro already absurdly powerful. Kenshiro is not a youth who needs to learn the ways of fighting and to live up to his potential, but a man who already has received the title of master of the world’s deadliest martial art. As such, Kenshiro’s victories are generally won through willpower and using the right moves in his encyclopedic collection of head-exploding strikes. The other move Hokuto no Ken makes is to establish its main villain Raoh relatively early and make him a proper end boss, and also establishing the fact that as far as fighting ability goes, both Kenshiro and Raoh are at similar levels. Even when the series goes crazy with Kaioh and such, this is never quite a problem.

Digimon Adventure 02 saw a problem when it realized that, if left the way things were, the already powerful Angemon could just go Ultimate and leave an unfortunate stain where the evil Digimon Kaiser (Digimon Emperor in the English dub) was once standing. To get around having to make the villain more absurdly powerful than the final opponents in the first series, the concept of the “black rings,” devices which prevent digital monsters from evolving, was created. The solution was that the heroes had to find an alternate means to “power up” which, while incapable of reaching their old heights, gave them a fighting chance. Eventually they overcame the Digimon Kaiser and new villains appeared, but at least for a time the shounen power creep was stayed.

Those are three examples. Can you think of any others?