Ogiue Chika, Goddess of the 2000s

Introduction

We are on the cusp of a new decade, and with such a benchmark on the way it’s only natural for people to reflect on the past, to review what has happened to them and everything they care for. Anime and manga fans are no exception. After all, it’s normal for us to assign certain traits to specific periods of anime and manga, whether it’s nostalgically remembering the “time when anime was GOOD” (which depending on your mileage can be pretty much any period) or analyzing the trends and developments in anime from decades prior, and to really be compelled to fight for the medium we love. Anime and manga thrive on emotion and reflection, and we love it for that reason. With all that in mind, I asked myself a question.

“How will this decade be remembered in the eyes of future anime fans and scholars?”

After much thought, I decided on nine ideas in total which I feel are significantly representative of the 2000s.

The Dawn of Digital Animation and the Proliferation of CG

For about as long as there has been an animation “industry” to speak of, cartoons were done on cels, painted and layered by hand, resulting in a cost-intensive and laborious process. When graphic technology progressed far enough that it became possible to animate shows “digitally,” it’s no surprise that the Japanese Animation industry, known for its significantly lower production costs compared to western counterparts, would by the early 2000s embrace this change. As of today, about the only cel animation holdovers that still exist are Sazae-san and Ponyo. Going hand in hand with the switch to digital is the increasing usage of cg and 3D graphics in anime, again generally as a cost-saving measure. Though 3D graphics in anime have been around since the late 80s (see Char’s Counterattack for example), it was the 2000s where it became a common sight.


Athrun Zala from Gundam SEED (left) and Gundam SEED Destiny (right)

The unique properties of the digital format influenced every aspect of animation production and aesthetics. Looking at character design for one example, characters are made to be colored digitally now and their features are drawn in ways which facilitate digital animation. As such, the impact the switch to digital has had on anime cannot be underestimated.

Digital Anime is a little over 10 years old now, which is a lot of time and yet not very much at all, and this decade has seen it go through some serious growing pains. In particular, it’s gone under scrutiny as critics from every level of anime, from the highest industry intellectuals to the fans, have pointed out how much it isn’t cel animation. Personally speaking, the classic example of awkward digital animation for me is Gundam SEED, where characters in zero-gravity environments looked like cut-outs awkwardly motion-tweened against a background, something which improved with SEED Destiny. Over time, animators have become more adept at using these “digital shortcuts” more effectively, and now just as you have people championing the days of cels, you also have people who think that digital animation is inherently superior.

The real answer of course is that each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and that it’s best to understand that, but that’s another talk for another day.

Character Over Story

Though there are still plenty of series which try to tell stories and have greater themes, the overall trend over the past few decades has been an increasing focus on the characters in those stories and to view them on a very personal level. While Evangelion is often marked as one of the major points where character emphasis began to supercede story emphasis, it is after 2000 where story truly begins to fall by the wayside. Taken to the extreme, these shows focus everything on intimate character portrayals with little to no narrative progress, eschewing narrative entirely, effectively creating a time capsule where characters are defined more by their static qualities than their active ones. Putting aside slice of life shows such as Hidamari Sketch and Azumanga Daioh, even series such as Haibane Renmei and Eureka Seven which place great emphasis on the grand scope of the world tend more towards the personal. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi in particular is a show whose story and events are more backdrops to display the characters and their workings.


Suzumiya Haruhi and the SOS-Dan

Essentially, this decade of anime and manga has been very much about “getting to know the characters” and treating them as “real.” Sometimes you’re a voyeur, peering into their most private moments. Sometimes you’re a close friend who gets to see them as they really are. In every case, it’s as if the goal is to have an anime viewer see a character and say, “I know what you’re really like.”

Moe

I could discuss moe all day long, but that’s not as important here as the fact that it became such a publicized word in anime fandom around the world. Whatever moe “is” or “is not,” in this decade it was clear that fans wanted it and that companies were eager to sell it.

While the word had been used prior to 2000 (such as in the 1999 visual novel Comic Party), it was after 2000 that the concept exploded and transformed into the beast that everyone knows and loves (or loves to hate). Moe became a buzzword, a rallying cry, and a point of contention as people inside and outside of the industry, as well as fans new and old, debated the effects that the popularization and push of “moe” had on the industry, the art form, and the people. The best example of how far the idea has reached would probably be the fact that Pokemon of all things featured a cute, spunky female character named “Moe” who had a crush on Satoshi/Ash.


Moe‘s name is also a pun on her usage of Fire-type Pokemon

At this point, it seems that moe has reached the height of its popularity and will become a genre that can be utilized in part or in whole. I suspect it will still be revisited in the future, but never again will we have this “moe mania,” perceived or otherwise.

“Softened” Character Designs

Chalk it up to “kawaii” or “moe” or “digital animation” or “influence from visual novels” or anything else, but character designs became softer in the period of 2000-2009. What does “softer” mean? It means rounder facial features, it means smoother curves on characters, it means subtle changes to color palettes that give off a sense of warmth, even in shows where you might not consider that appropriate. That’s not to say of course that “soft” character designs never existed in prior decades, but it was never to the same degree, and it did not seep into nearly every level and genre of anime in existence as it has here. It’s not just the Dengeki Daioh shows which went through this transformation.

It would be very easy to show you a picture of some gruff, manly shounen anime from the 80s and then put it next to something more modern and have people go, “Wow! That’s so different!” but there would be too many variables there, such as the inherent styles of the artists. Instead, I’m going to use a more subtle example.

Suzuki Mikura, Mezzo Forte (left), Mezzo Danger Service Agency (right)

Mezzo Forte is from 1998. Mezzo Danger Service Agency is from 2003. Both character designs are by the same person, Umetsu Yasuomi (who also directed both shows), and both of them are supposed to be the same character as well. Now Umetsu was always known as a skilled animator and character designer whose style leaned a little more towards the realistic side of things. And yet, look at what a difference five years make! If someone like Umetsu felt the winds of change to this extent, I think you can see what happened to character designs in anime as a whole.

Otaku in Fiction

Like many things on this list, the idea of otaku appearing in anime and manga isn’t new or unique to this decade, but the 2000s were when the concept exploded. While you had a handful of works in the previous decade, most notably Gainax’s Otaku no Video, the period from 2000-2009 saw such a growth of stories centered around otaku that it’s difficult to keep track of it all. Genshiken, Welcome to the NHK!, Lucky Star, Fujoshi Kanojo, Otaku no Musume-san, Rabuyan, Mousou Shoujo Otakukei, Tonari no 801-chan, Akibakei Kanojo, and of course Densha Otoko are among the many works which have thrown anime and manga fans into the fictional spotlight. Densha Otoko requires special mention, as its supposedly true story was partly responsible for Akihabara receiving much more mainstream media attention than in the past.

Not only are there stories about otaku now, but the “otaku” and the “fujoshi” have themselves become archetypes used in anime and manga. Go back to previous decades and only rarely will you find an otaku character who’s called an “otaku character.” Rarer still will you find them as main characters. The establishment of the otaku and fujoshi as character types in the world of anime, manga, and beyond is arguably a bigger impact than simply having works centered around otaku. Sanzenin Nagi would most assuredly have found a difficult time existing prior to this decade.


Sanzenin Nagi from Hayate the Combat Butler, Otaku Heroine

The arrival of the “otaku hero” is itself indicative of the increasing desire to appeal towards otaku. Just like how many shounen heroes are designed to appeal to kids by being more like them, otaku heroes are created to market towards anime and manga fans, to make it easier for them to relate to the characters and world of the story. At least, that’s the intention. Actual results have varied.

Greater Reverence for the Past in Remakes

Every decade has its remakes of famous and beloved works from the past, but there was something different about the way the 2000s went about it. In order to show just exactly what that difference is, we’re going to take a trip back over 40 years and start at the beginning.

In the 1960s a black and white cartoon called Tetsujin 28 appeared on Japanese television. Taking place in that era (or in “2001″ if you follow the Gigantor version), the show followed a boy detective named Kaneda Shoutarou and his remote-controlled giant robot “Tetsujin 28.” He would traipse about the world in his plaid suit and short shorts, righting wrongs and fighting crime, and the show was very popular among kids.

In 1980 someone decided to revive the franchise and Tetsujin 28 underwent “modernization.” Referred to either as New Tetsujin 28 or Emissary of the Sun Tetsujin 28, the new anime sported updated redesigns for both Shoutarou and his trusty metal companion, with Shoutarou ditching his semi-formal wear for an open button-down shirt over a striped t-shirt and Tetsujin 28 slimming down and gaining more “realistic” human proportions. The art was less like its predecessor and more like the other anime coming out at the time.

The series was remade again in 1992 under the title Super Electric Robo Tetsujin 28 FX. Taking place many years into the future, the main character this time around was the son of the Kaneda Shoutarou. Kaneda Masato looked completely like a 90s anime character, sporting wild spiked hair and trading in the old remote control for a remote control gun. The new Tetsujin 28 meanwhile was the biggest departure yet, with its massive armored frame, oversized shoulder pads, and angular features. One look at this show and its designs, and you would be able to determine its time frame almost instantly.

Then in 2004 another Tetsujin 28 was announced. Would the story this time be about Tetsujin 28 fighting terrorists in the 21st century? Would Shoutarou’s be changed into a bishounen? Just how would this Tetsujin 28 update itself? The answer, it turns out, is by revisiting post-war setting of the original anime and manga, putting Kaneda Shoutarou back in his suit and short shorts, and returning the titular robot to its round and cumbersome-looking original design. The main difference was, this time around they could tell an on-going story that wasn’t possible with the episodic nature of the first anime.


Tetsujin 28, 60s (top-left), 80s (top-right), 90s (lower-left), and 00s (lower-right)

 

Here we see the level of reverence that animated remakes in the 2000s have for their source material. As cool as Sugino Akio’s Black Jack from the OVAs looks, it’s more a Sugino design that it is an adaptation of the Tezuka version. Whether it’s the new Black Jack, the new Towards the Terra, or the new Glass Mask, these remakes over the past ten years have all derived their aesthetics from the originals and tried even in their updated redesigns to capture their visual essence, as opposed to re-envisioning the characters almost entirely to fit in with the current trends of animation. Re: Cutie Honey in particular is a prime example, when comparing its opening to the original’s. Even adaptation of 90s series such as Itazura na Kiss and Slayers Revolution went about trying to capture that 90s anime “feel.”

Overall, this decade has done a much better job at looking back then the decades previous, but that might just be because anime is old enough at this point for that to happen in a proper fashion.

The Kids’ Manga of Yesterday is the Adult Manga of Today

Tying directly into the remake reverence, nostalgia for anime and manga has become a greater factor in the industry than it ever has in the past, and it has everything to do with appealing to the adults of today who were once kids. As with the example of Tetsujin 28, the revivals of today differ from the revivals of yesteryear in that while the previous ones tried to update the series for the kids of that era, more current series tap directly into the adult market who have a longing for the anime and manga of their childhood. Whereas Kinnikuman and Hokuto no Ken ran in Shounen Jump (the current home of One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach), Kinnikuman II (1998) and Souten no Ken (2001) run in adult magazines high on nostalgia.


Hokuto no Ken’s Kenshiro (left), Souten no Ken’s Kasumi Kenshiro (right)

Nowhere is this more evident than in the way the super robot genre has been approached over the past ten years. Arguably starting with 1997′s Gaogaigar and its realization that adults are watching this kids’ show, super robots have tried to tap into the childhood of those 18 and up. One only has to look at Gurren-Lagann, Godannar!!, Koutetsushin Jeeg, New Getter Robo, Shin Mazinger, Aim for the Top 2 and others to see this trend. While not all of these shows go out of their way to alienate new viewers (and shows such as Gaiking: Legend of Daikumaryu try harder to focus on a younger audience), they are still homages to the themes and tropes of decades past, trying to attract yesterday’s fan today.

 

Accelerated Access to Anime

Looking at the way we watch anime and read manga now, with our streaming videos, official online comics, torrents, rapidshares, and just ease of access to the product, it can be easy to remember that there was a time when getting any anime at all was a diffcult feat, and any show we saw was many years old at that point. But let’s not step back too far, and just consider the fact that there was a time before stores had “anime” or “manga” sections where you could easily buy the latest volume of your favorite series (or not buy, as the case may be).

Speed of information. Speed of communication. Speed has defined this decade as a whole, let alone in the realm of anime and manga, but it’s in the easy access to large amounts of media that anime began to feel like a juggernaut. On the up-and-up, you could buy anime DVDs and manga in mainstream stores and chains, or watch anime about fighting with monsters on Saturday Morning cartoons, or catch Cartoon Network’s Toonami and Adult Swim. On the illegitimate side of things, people began to produce “digisubs,” obviating the need for VHS fansubs and tape-trading. IRC downloads gave way to Direct Connect, which was succeeded by the Bittorrent, which in turn was overtaken in popularity by a new website called YouTube, which ushered in an age of streaming video.


The ease with which we could find anime made the world feel a little smaller

At anime cons, industry representatives have talked about how Bittorrent, while significant, didn’t cut into their revenues nearly as much as streaming video had. Streaming anime was fast, easy to understand (no “What’s a Torrent?”), and of course it was free. That’s why so many companies are trying streaming video right now; they know that this is where people are turning and they want to get something out of it rather than trying to squash it entirely. Even the Japan side is getting more savvy about this, with Bandai Channel getting into the mix and the rise of Nico Nico Douga. Now we actually have shows which are accessible to international audiences at nearly the exact same minute as a broadcast in Japan. And ironically, some people have shown that it’s still not fast enough.

The Ups and Downs of Internationalization

Back in 2000 I saw the second Pokemon movie on opening day, as I had with the first movie. I distinctly remember it being the summer of 2000, seeing as how the English title for the movie was Pokemon 2000 and all. But as I sat in the theater with friends that morning, I looked at the entrances for a moment and then…they came. Children flooded the theater, seeping into every row and every seat that they could like a single Pikachu-loving blob. In a couple of minutes the theater was packed. This was Pokemon. This was where anime had gone.

Then years later I went to see the 5th movie, starring Latios and Latias in theaters. Once again it was opening day, but this time I was the only person in the theater. Looking back, this should have told me everything I needed to know about the life of anime and manga in this decade.


The Pokemon movies from 2000 and 2003

The anime and manga industries of today struggle as their peers and rivals fall victim to a mix of overzealousness, bad decisions, and a market that just isn’t there even though they wanted it to be. But whether there was ever any actual success, or whether it was built purely on kindle and gumdrops from the beginning, the fact that these companies were even around to be eliminated, the fact that someone could actually think an “Anime Network” would succeed, the fact that another person would think, “We have to make our cartoons more like that anime stuff,” the fact that Anime and Manga could even give the impression of “Making It Big” is amazing in itself.

Conclusion

Anime and manga in the period from 2000-2009 has undergone changes in almost every area imaginable, from the way it’s watched to the way it’s created, from storytelling styles and character aesthetics, to perceptions of the past and the future. Whether it’s for the better or worse, I think ultimately history will have a neutral opinion on this era as the good inevitably came with the bad.

While these changes have been quite major, they do not exist in a bubble separate from history, and if you look closely you’ll find strong connections going back to the earliest days of anime and manga that continuously resonate from past to present. And in a way, this decade was not so different from the ones previous to it in the sense that every decade has brought with it changes to how anime is perceived, received, and produced. What’s different this time though, is that everyone around the world can see them more clearly and talk about them with ease, as we are doing right now.

So that’s 2000-2009 and the look back. Get ready for Part 2, where I talk about where I think anime and manga will be going in the coming years.

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