The recent decades of anime and manga outside of Japan are characterized by the struggle to gain overseas popularity and to capture the imagination of western literary criticism. Throughout the years the fandom was put under pressure to develop mechanisms for fending off against the prejudices fueled by past Japanese-American relations and the cultural legacy of cartoons being degraded to children’s entertainment. Indeed, history doesn’t look all that pretty, but ultimately the push against the current bore success.
These days anime and manga have small, but vibrant industries in the western world, providing overseas fans fast and high-quality releases, which are now being streamed on major distribution platforms such as YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu. Business is booming, as is awareness of the medium. Everybody knows what the word anime means, and being a nerd who watches anime among other nerdy things has become sort of fashionable. Fans don’t have to struggle anymore by scavenging for subtitled copies in small comic book shops. We don’t have to camp obscure IRC channels for digital copies anymore, or send money to strange men living in basements with the hope of them returning a working, subtitled VHS copy. We can simply open a video app instead and have whatever we want to watch running on our mobile screens in seconds.
Being a fan of anime is pretty awesome these days. We are getting all these cool new shows and the library of timeless classics is constantly growing. I mean, who wants to go back to meager offerings of the past and poor accessibility? Obviously nobody. However, I do feel that being a fan in those days had its own charm. It was a hobby that forced you to socialize if you wanted your anime fix, which is quite different from these days. Think about that, you had to put in some effort to be able to watch anime. Sticking to the past isn’t desirable for a plethora of reasons, but I do feel that the hobby lost something in the process of shedding the inconveniences. Now that anime is easier to access than ever before, and all the knowledge a regular anime fan wants is right there on various wiki sites, what point is there besides endless consumption? What challenge is the medium going to throw at us next?
I believe that in the past anime fandom shared a common goal. To boil it down, we wanted to make anime more popular so as to benefit from that, but it was a struggle. Every fan of my generation can recall a personal story how he or she needed to explain herself to a layman why she loved what she loved, why this pursuit was no more childish than indulging in other types of entertainment, or why it wasn’t a waste of time. On the other hand, anime and manga’s worldwide accessibility was for the longest time shouldered by fansubbers and hackers, fans themselves, so to speak. I was part of this collective for a few years, and I can vouch that the amount of time and effort that went into fan translating anime almost felt like a full-time job at times. The persecution complex was also strong in our circles, which might have been due to the anti-piracy narrative that was at its strongest a decade ago, or perhaps due to the tight-knit relationship fans had with anime licensing companies. Despite the risks we knew we were on the right side of history, and so we kept on translating and kept on downloading with even more valor.
Another avenue of appeal stemmed from the fact that these mediums stayed mystified for a very long time, no thanks to fans that weren’t very methodical in pursuing knowledge about them, spreading misinformation and folklore along the way. It has taken several generations of Japanese linguistic studies graduates to become quite decent at translating Japanese media. Academia has also started taking a keen interest in them, carefully examining the state of things and clearing up some of the misconceptions that persisted throughout the decades. One misconception that is still relatively prevalent among fans even to this day is that anime is widely appreciated in Japan. Historical record has been set straight for the most part, facts published on Wikipedia with proper sourcing, and so on. Anime and manga have through proper translation practices and research lost most of their exoticism.
Miyazaki Hayao winning an Oscar for Best Animation was an event that ultimately led to the current situation in the West. Corporations have taken over translation and knowledge creation, and so us fans are left with the job of merely consuming the content. We don’t run anime clubs anymore with the intent of promoting anime and spreading otaku knowledge, because anime are popular enough on their own, while the clubs themselves turned into awkward social hubs with no creative output.
I thought long and hard what the “grand narrative” for western anime fandom was supposed to be this decade, what characterizes this generation apart from popular titles, where the “class struggle” lies in and all of that, but I simply can’t see it. Anime fandom these days is just one large parade toward adulthood, whilst older otaku are left to their own private interests. Even us bloggers used to think we were making a difference by writing passionate posts about anime, evangelizing everything that was interesting about the medium and our fandom. But whenever someone tries to do that these days, I start to wonder for how long have we been preaching to the choir.
Anime has become popular! So what are we supposed to be doing now?