For the discussion at hand I think it’s necessary to point out that there hasn’t been a shortage of anime aimed at adults since the 1980s. However, shows that also feature adult characters and adulthood are a completely different story. Supposedly there’s been an increase of them lately, and while I can’t be bothered to check the statistical relevance of that observation, I don’t think it matters even if the increase turns out to be negligent. What’s more important is that shows like Usagi Drop and this time around Fune wo Amu have finally been able to capture our attention. But is this new trend a consequence of fans getting older and them being able to understand the mindset of a working person, or have we somehow been tricked into watching them, much like it is the case with any other cute girls show?
Shirobako is a great example to start off with. The work is being paraded around by fans who are more than willing to point to its use of adult characters and motifs because of its success. I’m thrilled as well that a show like this exists, but I suspect some critics will have difficulty admitting that cute character designs and their innocent demeanor also had something to do with that. Admitting this would supposedly diminish the seriousness of the work, even if we ignore that girls who look like they were in high school occupy the majority of screen time.
What about shows like Fune wo Amu then? The story of it is set in a rundown publishing house, not in high school, while the cast of mostly male characters is not particularly well-suited for ogling. If you’re not a fan of any particular voice actor, which are few, you might start to wonder where the hook is. Is it possible that the show believes in being unique is enough to catch people’s attention? Or perhaps it has bitterly rejected the idea of pandering to any and all established fan groups?
In order to answer that, the first thing to note is that the show shares some similarities with Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, in that they both explore what could be described as closing worlds. The world of rakugo has to deal with shrinking audiences and an impoverished talent pool. Overabundance of alternative entertainment compels one of the characters to defy his master for the sake of his art. The world of publishing is facing similar trials. Consider that The Great Passage is scheduled to take ten years to complete. Detached from the main building the dictionary department has continued living their own reality, employing a method that they’ve known has worked for ages. But times have changed. Their publishing model sounds absurd for today’s world, and while the department’s sense of self-importance may come across as endearing, with hindsight it’s hard for us today not to characterize it as naïve or out of touch.
The shortcomings of the dictionary department mirror those of the protagonist. Majime Mitsuya lives in analogue paradise. He sleeps in a room surrounded by books and he doesn’t fancy a cellphone. Instead, he socializes with his elderly landlady, who is a thoroughbred of the Shouwa period. Much like him and his books, his department is incredibly wasteful with space, taking up huge storage rooms when their editors could all just learn to use a computer. The kicker is that we’re talking about paper publishing in the year of 2000, a time in which smart phones and elastic search still didn’t exist. Around that time paper publishing had gone over its peak and fell into decline. Subtle hints of an economic downturn, such as Sasaki being employed as a temporary worker, also help to illustrate that the story has been set in time right before shit hits the fan – before technology changes communication, publishing, and human interaction forever.
The overhanging doom instructs the viewer to savor what little peace of mind the editorial staff still enjoys. In a sense the show is lamenting that contemporary life should be more like this. The ecosystem that supported tedious ventures such as frequent dictionary revisions allowed editorial departments to spend attention to detail, but in today’s high-frequency publishing that becomes a pricey commodity. Personally I don’t see the current publishing situation as tragic as some might. When it comes to dictionaries, traditional hardcover editions haven’t been very handy for at least a decade. They are a symbol of prestige and appreciation for language itself, but for their original purpose we rather use online search engines or wiki sites, where new meanings and dank memes are constantly being documented and curated by thousands of people, essentially for free.
That being said I personally work in IT, so my view of the situation may not be shared by many people, especially not by Japanese with an education in humanities or similar. But this also gives me the distance to notice that some people may be more ripe than others for being exploited in terms of entertainment. Consider that Fune wo Amu was serialized in a woman’s lifestyle magazine, and the fact that humanities courses in Japan have been dominated by female students for decades. This year I’ve been following more anime shows aimed at women than ever before. Going through the full list, however, it’s just impossible to ignore that the most popular ones share a certain affinity for history or culture. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, Touken Ranbu, Drifters, Natsume Yuujinchou all exploit this sensibility.
Fune wo Amu aims at a certain branch of intellectuals by expressing sorrow for old souls like Majime. More generally though it is trying to appeal to our sense of loss and pressure to evolve in order to keep up with the rest of the world. So while it’s nice that we’re getting more shows with adult characters, I would be hesitant to put them on a pedestal just for this, when insofar these shows have only demonstrated a penchant for escapist storytelling. Knowing that being an otaku and searching for an escape are intrinsically intertwined and diametrically opposed to an image of a responsible adult, I can’t make sense of the distortion that this realization evokes. But I think it’s fair to say that just having more shows prominently featuring adulthood is a good first step to discovering a less childish storytelling model.