There was a time when Japan’s remarkable animation industry was almost unknown in the west. In the 70s and early 80s, quirky shows such as Marine Boy and Battle Of The Planets (a sanitised, heavily edited localisation of the considerably more violent Space Science Team Gatchaman) were the only morsels of the country’s vibrant and imaginative anime scene.
As the 1980s drew to a close, however, awareness of Japanese animation steadily grew in western consciousness. As a UK resident, my fascination with anime began with the BBC’s airing of The Mysterious Cities Of Gold and Ulysses 31, whose distinctive character designs were immediately distinguishable from the other children’s fodder clogging up late-80s television schedules.
Then came Streamline Pictures’ video release of Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo’s extraordinarily detailed adaptation of his own manga. This single film did more to sell anime to western audiences than any other series or feature before or since.
In the wave of interest that followed, Manga Entertainment was formed, releasing dubbed OVAs and theatrical features on VHS, starting with the extraordinarily brutal Fist Of The Northstar in the early 90s.
The distinctive visual language and conventions of anime have now become so fully assimilated into western culture that it’s almost taken for granted. Its style has informed the look of the western animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and its colour and energy is all over Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.
But as anime has worked its way into our consciousness, there are worrying signs that the artform may be beginning to falter in its native Japan. According to an article in the LA Times, the number of anime series being produced in the country has halved since 2007, and the number of artists working within the industry is beginning to shrink.
The reasons for the decline are manifold. Time consuming and expensive, many animation studios are beginning to outsource the more repetitive elements of their jobs, such as the labour-intensive rendering of in-between frames, to other far eastern countries such as Vietnam and India.
At the time, Japanese anime has come under increasing competition from other forms of entertainment, including videogames and rival animated shows from China. Online piracy has also taken its toll, with studios losing revenue as their work is freely distributed on video sharing websites.
As I write this, the respected animator Satoshi Kon passed away at the tragically young age of just 46. One of the founder members of the animation studio Gainax, his output, including Paprika, Paranoia Agent and the brilliantly disturbing feature Perfect Blue, was innovative and intelligently written.
Kon’s passing is a sad loss for an industry already battered by technological progress and financial uncertainty. Earlier this week, animation legend Hayao Miyazaki made the passing suggestion that Studio Ghibli may close its doors should its next two features fail to make enough money. A distant possibility rather than a certainty, perhaps, but a saddening prospect, nevertheless.
There are glimmers of hope among the gloom, however. The LA Times also reports that the Japanese government is looking to invest more capital to protect its troubled industry, with some $2.4 million being put into the creation of training programmes for the country’s fledgling animators.
We can only hope that the Japanese anime industry can evolve and survive the problems it’s currently facing, and that new, talented artists will arrive to fill the gap sadly left by Satoshi Kon.
Anime has done much to shape the cultural landscape in recent decades, and the world would be a poorer place without its distinctive, vital energy and colour.