Does Talent Come in Waves? Explaining the 1990 to 2010 Boom in Anime
Giorgio Vasari is considered the father of art history. There were historians before him who talked about art, but no one near as thoroughly as he did in his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. This would become the foundational text for Western art history. Vasari coined the term "Renaissance". He believed that art quality had been excellent during antiquity, fell drastically during the Middle Ages, and then was "reborn" for a period called the "Renaissance". Art before that specific time period or after it was considered lesser in quality, largely judging based on the realism of the figures' proportions, as well as the realism evident in the artists' use of light and shadow.
Earlier art was bad at representing the human figure accurately, and used hierarchical scale instead of single-point perspective, meaning the size of the figures in medieval art had to do with their importance. Medieval art was interested in illustrating Bible stories and history for largely illiterate masses. They used hierarchical scale and specific visual symbolism to communicate those stories effectively to uneducated people. The return of education and literacy was then necessary for greater realism in art.
Following the supposed peak of art in the Italian Renaissance, many people, not just Vasari, believed that later art movements like Mannerism and Baroque art exaggerated and distorted the figure too much to be in line with what they believed to be the serene, proportionate ideal of classical beauty.
I think art follows boom and bust cycles like anything else, that are often caused by larger economic and political forces. Physical events like disease outbreaks, droughts, and extreme weather events can also impact art. After the Italian Renaissance, we saw similar booms in art, such as the Dutch Baroque boom, in which an expanding middle class increased demand for still lives and simple domestic scenes of everyday life. In the more recent history of Western media, people talk about things like the Golden Age of comics (1938-1956), or the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999).
My main questions are, what causes these cycles, and can we talk about anime as having periods like this?
It is too difficult to determine exactly what causes them, but it can usually be attributed to a generation of talented creators reaching the peaks of their careers at once. Economic, political, and social factors also play an immense role, because art is not made in a vacuum. The more expensive it is to make something, and animation is very expensive, the more it is a reflection of the tastes of people who have money, and/or a reflection of what people with money think will be a good return on investment.
I believe that similarly to Disney animation, Japanese animation had its Golden Age, I'd have to do more research about when exactly, but probably around the 50s-70s. And then, the period from roughly 1990 to 2010 would constitute an Anime Renaissance.
The Big Warning
To talk about cycles of boom and bust in art quality is tricky. Quality is extremely subjective in arts and entertainment; one person's trash is another's treasure. Even critical consensus at the time the works came out, and awards, are not foolproof methods of judging quality of art, because these things are subject to all the biases humans can be subject to: peer pressure, in-group preference, preconceived cultural ideas of beauty, and so on. It wouldn't even be too much of a stretch even to say that people more or less get into art history and theory in order to justify their own preconceived ideas of what is good and bad in art. The emotional reaction we have to something comes first, and then we use big academic words and technical jargon to rationalize it. That's possibly what I'm doing here, so I want readers to take this with a grain of salt. My opinions about anime quality are not necessarily more valid than other people's.
How I Got Here
The years from 2000 to 2010 were when I watched the most anime. Anime from the late 90s in Japan was crossing the shore and airing on Cartoon Network. I was blown away by it, because it was all so different from anything else I'd seen in cartoons. It was pure and simple avant-garde art, challenging the conventions of the medium, blurring genres, and defying expectations the public had about animation. It wasn't to last, though. Looking back, I think the period ended because many of the talented people working on these anime quit working, or they just were never quite able to match some peak they reached in this time period.
When I look for excellence in anime, I mean I'm looking for:
- Challenging and pushing boundaries of the medium, and defying expectations about animation as an art form.
- Not just serious drama, but drama that makes me the most emotionally invested.
- Characters that seem like real people, rather than stereotypes. Main good characters should feel like people I want to be, or that I'd want to meet in real life. Villains should seem like real people, and have clear reasons for what they do.
- Playing with genre conventions and defying cliche tropes associated with the genre.
- Entertainment value, going beyond that of regular "lighter" shows, by holding up over many re-watches. This can only be known after a test of time of a few years.
- Not afraid to tackle complex or heavy topics, resists the simplicity of morality, philosophy, and characterization common in anime and cartoons.
This is similar to the concept of the "prestige television" boom in the West, which most people believe started with HBO's hit The Sopranos, and continues to this day.
The anime that came out that were like this after 2010, I could count on one hand. The overall trends in anime were to deliver shallow, unremarkable fanservice shows about cute imoutos (fetishized little sisters) and isekai fantasies to an otaku audience. Anime was catering to "heavy users" instead of the general public, making it all feel too self-congratulatory, formulaic, cliche-driven, and uncreative.
There are good anime that came out more recently, though. In fact, I think we might be on the verge of a new wave of great anime, largely driven by the rise of streaming sites. Especially, Netflix funding and showing anime, with Hulu and Crunchyroll actively supporting the industry as well, opens up a lot of new opportunities for animation creators. But this is about the general trends, considering what shows and movies tend to get produced in certain time periods.
The more honest story of how I got here: I was quarantined in my bunker with the rest of humanity, and decided to pass the time with Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and that made me cry the stereotypical nostalgic refrain, "Why can't they make anything this good anymore?" So, since my typical response to emotional problems is to gather a crap-ton of information, organize it, brood over it, and so on, this is what I'm doing here. So, enjoy my mental breakdown.
Timeline of Great Anime: 1990 to 2010
Just Before 1990
Grave of the Fireflies: 1988, Akira: 1988
YuYu Hakusho: 1992-94, Sailor Moon: 1992-1997
Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1995-96, Ghost in the Shell (film): 1995
Rurouni Kenshin: 1996-98
Cowboy Bebop: 1997-98, Princess Mononoke: 1997, Perfect Blue: 1997, Revolutionary Girl Utena: 1997
Hellsing: Original: 2001-02, Spirited Away: 2001
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: 2002-05
Fullmetal Alchemist (original series): 2003-04, Tokyo Godfathers: 2003, The Animatrix: 2003
Wolf's Rain: 2004, Howl's Moving Castle: 2004
Death Note: 2006-07, Hellsing Ultimate: 2006-12, Paprika: 2006, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: 2006
Code Geass: 2008, Black Butler: 2008-10
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: 2009-10, Rebroadcast of "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya" with new episodes.
"Auteur theory" is a film studies theory focusing on films as representations of the artistic visions of creators, usually directors. That way of thinking about cinema has fallen out of favor, out of recognition that film is not just the product of one person, but a collaborative process requiring the work of many people. But, the final executive decisions for creative works are in the hands of a few people. And I think part of the reason for the peak in anime is there were these exceptionally talented creators working on anime at the time, who either quit working on anime, or whose later work just never matched the vigor and emotional force of their pinnacle.
People who are definitely to thank for this boom include:
- Shinichiro Watanabe: Director of Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and all-around mad genius.
- Yoko Kanno: Composer of music for many of the anime at this time. Many songs she wrote are emotionally impactful, with more distinctiveness and staying power than many of the breathless J-pop tunes used for lesser anime's soundtracks. There were other great anime music composers active during this time as well, including Shinkichi Mitsumune and Kenji Kawai.
- Hideaki Anno: Director of Neon Genesis Evangelion, definitely responsible for pushing the envelope when it comes to anime boundaries and conventions. NGE likely sparked a wave of, if not quite imitators, creators who became suddenly inspired to be like Anno and take more risks to tell the stories they want to tell.
- The Wachowskis: Their hit The Matrix, as well as the anime spinoff The Animatrix, undoubtedly inspired many anime creators at the time as well. Shinichiro Watanabe directed some scenes.
- Satoshi Kon: Anime director who did some of his best films during this time: Paprika, Perfect Blue, and Tokyo Godfathers. He's good at creating a mood of psychological suspense.
- Hayao Miyazaki: Director who did some of his best work during this period. Miyazaki has had an amazing, long career, and is beloved by fans worldwide.
Of course, there are many people to thank for all these quality shows. But booms can't happen without exceptionally talented, hard-working people leading the troops into battle.
Is the late 90s - early 00s spike in anime quality real, or is it just my nostalgia getting in the way of rational observation? I think it's not so much that anime from 2010 to 2019 was so bad, but, a lot of it just wasn't being made anymore for people like me: women, and people who wanted the deep, heavy, serious, and mature stuff. Because what we got was mostly slapstick comedy, loli/imouto fetish-catering stuff, and like a million shows about an otaku guy waking up in a magical pantyland. It was okay and all, but it was not what I got into anime for in the first place.
But, like I said, I think the kind of anime I prefer might be making a comeback with Netflix-funded series, recent heavy-hitting movies like A Silent Voice, and I'm pretty happy about Aggretsuko and Beastars. So who knows what the future has in store. I definitely expect Netflix to take the lead. But I'm really praying for good anime now, what with the quarantine.