Brief Thoughts on Anime, Manga, and COVID-19

It’s rare that anything can have such a visibly profound global impact, but that’s what we’re seeing with COVID-19. I find it funny that I tried last year to predict what the 2020s would hold in store, and it hasn’t even been six months before everything has gone sideways. For many people around the world, it has disrupted various aspects of life, and even the anime and manga industries have already felt its effects. Notably, A Certain Scientific Railgun T was delayed for a little while specifically because of the novel coronavirus, and its situation portends to a general trend going forward.

But COVID-19 likely won’t just change the production logistics of anime and manga—there’s also storytelling, themes, visual expression, and just about all the things we might take for granted or perceive as the norm. While we’re probably see works that either try to explore disease and pandemics (either directly or metaphorically), even more escapist entertainment is going to have the specter of the coronavirus hanging over. What does a harem manga even feel like in an era of social distancing? What about seeing characters just give one another hugs? To what extent well even the fantasies of fiction feel odd? In recent days, I’ll look at old videos from a month ago—including but not limited to anime and manga—and their tacit assumptions about the world already feel…dated.

Another big factor is how globally common the problem of COVID-19 has become. Something like 9/11 affected the US differently compared to other countries (though the US’s actions continue to have widespread effects). 3.11 hit Japan in life-changing ways, but that’s not as much the case in other areas. COVID-19 feels different in that its basic consequences are similar the world over. The disease spreads very easily, and it doesn’t discriminate. Old people are most at risk but no one is necessarily “safe.” Restaurants, theaters, and other social gathering sites cannot function as normal. Staying home as much as you can in order to help out is the name of the game. This universality means any media or entertainment made in response to COVID-19 will be understood virtually anywhere. 

Incidentally, Season 2 of the Cells at Work anime was just announced for January 2021. How ironic it would be if that series got delayed due to these circumstances…

The way COVID-19 has changed and will continue to affect everyday life is difficult to fully grasp, and I hope humankind can come out of this safe and sound and ready to tackle whatever problems still face us. In the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see how our art and entertainment reflect this new world.

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.

What Manga is Shirai Kuroko Always Talking About?

“Death Note”