Jonathan Clements‘ name is familiar to many Anime News Network readers. He translated anime back in the 1990s, when he was already one of Britain’s most prominent pundits on the medium. Today, he hosts the annual Scotland Loves Anime festival in Edinburgh and Glasgow; he’s also the co-writer of the Anime Encyclopedia (with Helen McCarthy) and the author of numerous history books, many relating to Japan or China.
Nearly ten years ago, ANN interviewed Clements about his newly-published book Anime: A History, an overview of anime’s evolution since its early forms at the start of the last century. Now, a second edition of the book has been published, with Clements adding another 50,000 words of text, including three brand-new chapters. It’s high time to catch up with him again…
Since the first edition of Anime: A History was published in 2013, which developments in the anime industry have surprised you the most?
JONATHAN CLEMENTS: That Netflix Japan only started in 2015. That a woman got arrested in Suzhou for cosplaying. That Hayao Miyazaki still hasn’t retired… no, that wasn’t a surprise, was it?
The first of your new chapters is about the complex relationship between anime and China. Obviously, much English-language writing on anime focuses on anime’s relationship with America. Beyond China’s size and political power, what are some of the most interesting and important things about the territory’s relationship with anime?
There are laborers in China who work on “Japanese” cartoons and do so in dedicated studios. There are places in China with Japanese supervisors overseeing Chinese staff, who exclusively work for Japanese studios, using Japanese paint and Japanese cels and shipping it all back as hand luggage on regular plane trips.
Some are full-service facilities, but some work in the dark, like the background studios that often don’t know what the scripts are. They just get told: draw a castle. Draw a sky. Draw a bed. Draw a bed from another angle. Draw the bed from another angle…. And that’s when some artists realized that they were working on a hentai anime but were only doing the furniture.
China’s kind of a hostile witness to anime. It has a huge otaku population that has the potential to kick anime earnings up to the next level, but in Chinese terms, they are a lunatic fringe that is only a fraction of a percent of the population. The Chinese government has an industrial policy regarding animation. They treat it like they treat semiconductors or tractors. There are output targets and domestic technology quotas, and in the middle of it all is someone trying to tell a story about a time-traveling photo studio.
China’s own animation is now a growth area, as witnessed by successes such as the time-travel series Link Click. Do you foresee Chinese animation becoming a substantial rival to anime in the future? Or are there still healthy opportunities for business deals between anime companies and studios and their counterparts in China?
That’s what everyone was hoping for, wasn’t it? We had numbers that told us that monetizing Chinese fandom could multiply the size of the anime business by a factor of twenty. So everyone was keen on that. But then China’s Revised Law on the Protection of Minors comes along in 2020, which completely guts anime’s potential for more mature audiences. Because it reiterates that a minor under Chinese law is “anyone under 18”, and that really wipes out that demographic sweet spot in the late teens for which so many anime are intended.
What that meant, in turn, was that Chinese investors in Japan got cold feet about putting up money for anything racy or risqué because they knew they wouldn’t be able to sell it back in China anymore. Instead, you start to get “anime with Chinese characteristics” – investors, Chinese and otherwise, saying sure, we’ll fund your cartoon, but it has to be readily compliant with the Chinese market before you release it. Not something that we make to appeal to Japanese youths and then cram into the Chinese market as something exotic.
You’ll see stuff like that for as long as there’s a “technology exchange” for the Chinese to benefit from. Then they’ll cut the Japanese off because the whole industrial policy for animation in China is one of local self-sufficiency.
Another of your new chapters focuses on the otaku audience and its power in the anime industry today. That power is sometimes criticized, not just by the curmudgeonly Miyazaki, but by some fans who blame otaku for the rise of, for example, extremely formulaic anime genres such as isekai anime. Your book characterizes otaku as a niche market in Japan, albeit with big spending power. Meanwhile, as anime becomes mainstream among Gen Z viewers in America, will the power of otaku in Japan over what is made start to decrease?
You can call otaku a niche if you like, but at the moment, the otaku sector is worth more than half of all the anime made.
At a financial level, the studios don’t care if it’s a family of four coming to see the new Ghibli or a single otaku buying four tickets for himself so he can pick up all the collectible gonks and wotsits at the exclusive screenings for a fanbait feature. Both examples are selling four tickets, although the studio probably spent less advertising for the otaku because they knew they could reach the whole crowd with a full-page ad in Newtype and a clickthrough somewhere online.
The power of the otaku audience is that there will be something that the mainstream has never heard of, some light novel or visual novel about teenage girls managing a dairy farm or something, and it’ll have two million downloads. And there will be a guy in a meeting somewhere saying to a bunch of men in suits: “I know you’ve never heard of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, but if you make a movie based on it, we’ll fill 200 cinemas for a month.”
I don’t think that kind of stuff does transcend its pre-existing audience. What it does do, however, is periodically expose the mainstream to the fact that the kids are watching Fate/stay night, and those franchises do not need to interest the general public because they are doing just fine without them. But it’s very easy to confuse otaku bait with the mainstream. Demon Slayer has a 90% brand recognition with the Japanese public, so it’s not fair to call it otaku material. Otaku material remains the very obscure, late-night stuff that only appeals to a small audience, still sometimes only in four figures. But as I said, it can still make money for the studios.
The third of your new chapters focuses on developments in exhibiting anime, including the rise of platforms such as Netflix and Crunchyroll. ANN has recently run a column making the case for continuing to buy anime Blu-rays, especially with so many reports of series being pulled unceremoniously from streaming platforms, sometimes with no warning. A business report last year (Weekly Toyo Keizai) suggested Netflix had gained a reputation for commissioning anime only to bury them; it also claims that anime companies are becoming more inclined to sell their titles to broadcast TV first. Do you think streaming media are failing anime?
I think you’ll get a different answer from a guy with a placard standing on a picket line in Hollywood than you will from a teenage boy in Omaha who has fallen in love with Evangelion. The streamers have made huge amounts of anime available. If you watch every anime on Crunchyroll, all day, every day, without eating or sleeping, it will take you seventy-five years to get through them all.
This has a knock-on effect on anime’s sheer reach because Evangelion, even though it will be thirty years old soon, is sitting on millions of menus all around the world, reaching a huge audience. As Anime Limited discovered when they planned to put out a limited-edition box set, they were overwhelmed with orders because the show had far more new viewers than expected.
I want to point out, as well, that there’s more than one kind of “streamer.” You mention Netflix and Crunchyroll, but Pornhub is a streamer, too, and actually publishes its statistics, so we know, for example, that “hentai” has been the most popular global search term there for the last two years.
When it comes to the likes of Netflix and Amazon, they have really tied up production in Japan. You have studios that can’t take on new work until 2026 because they are booked up the wazoo working for the streamers. But as you say, the problem is that the streamers will fork out all this money for a show and then just kill it for the tax write-off. I think a lot of people were taken by surprise by the live-action Cowboy Bebop, which was dropped onto Netflix in its entirety and then cancelled within a fortnight because not enough people binge-watched it immediately.
I think streaming media are failing a lot of people, and I think the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are trying to make that point right now. But I don’t think they’ve failed anime yet. Their concept of what constitutes anime is certainly skewing it towards something that is not designed to appeal to the Japanese, but to a notional, homogenized global audience, and I think that might ultimately turn out to be to anime’s detriment because so many fans embrace it because it’s different, not because it’s the same as everything else.
In recent years, there have been continuing criticisms of the industry’s low living standards by Japanese animators themselves – on social media, for example – as well as reports on these problems in Anglophone media. (One current TV anime, Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead, opens with a coruscating depiction of a bright-eyed young grad being worked to death at a “black company.”) Do you think there will be any substantial change soon – either an improvement in standards or an implosion in the industry as fewer people are tempted to become animators?
As I point out in my final chapter, there is a huge change underway even as we speak, which is the new Japanese legislation, the “Work-Style Labor Reforms,” which began phasing in, ironically, right in the middle of the pandemic. It capped overtime at 720 hours a year, which created huge bottlenecks at anime companies and saw some animators get pay raises as “golden handcuffs” to keep them from jumping ship. So, perhaps only for a little while, animators are getting more money because, suddenly, the companies are being forced to treat them a bit more humanely. I don’t know how long that’ll last, though…
In terms of other future developments, many pundits point to AI in animation, with apocalyptic predictions of how that may throw out human artists and writers and let the machines and algorithms take over. This issue extends far beyond anime, but would you predict how it will change the industry in five or ten years?
If I ever get to write a 14th chapter of my book, in a third edition ten years down the line, it will undoubtedly be about so-called artificial intelligence. And I’ll call it “An Insult to Life Itself,” playfully quoting Miyazaki on the whole thing. I’m glad you say “prediction” because, as a historian, I am not supposed to be talking about things that haven’t happened yet. I’m supposed to be talking about how things did happen, and I can already see some of the inflectional points on a notional timeline of A.I, including the development of M.A.S.S.I.V.E. software for Lord of the Rings, and Mamoru Hosoda adapting it to animate shoals of fish in Mirai. Then there’s Yūhei Sakuragi using it to make crowd scenes in The Relative Worlds and introducing the concept of “human fallback,” which is the level of human jiggery-pokery required to get the programs to do what you want. A third point, unpleasantly close to home, is the use of A.I. to generate text – Helen McCarthy and I have already caught one website falsely attributing articles to us that we didn’t even know were being written.
But to take machine learning at face value, it’s going to make a huge difference to the toolkit available to animators. It’s going to make sakuga criticism come to the fore because prompters will want to be able to describe and delineate what it is that makes certain animators’ work preferable to others in certain situations. And it’s going to lead to an in-depth crunching of numbers on what it is that makes anime what it is – we’ve already had those guys feeding Vampire Hunter D into a machine to see what happens.
One day, in the future, you or your cyborg descendant is going to walk into your home after a hard day doing space things and say: “I want to see The Seven Samurai, but I want them all to be badgers working for Nicole Kidman.” And Siri will ask you: “Do you want to press the anime filter?” And you’ll say: sure…. And hey presto, that film will start to play out in front of you, and the presence of that anime filter will be a stylistic, thematic device that doesn’t involve the Japanese at all. That sounds pretty awful…
Then again, who says I’ll write chapter 14? Maybe it’ll be written by the Clembot 4000. And only machines will read it.