noitaminA and the Future of Anime: A Conversation

Hope you all enjoyed the conversation between Shinbo and Nishio Ishin. Today, I’ve got something fairly enlightening for you all: this is a conversation between Aki Takanori (CEO, Good Smile Company), Ooyama Ryou (Producer, Aniplex) and Yamamoto Kouji (Editor-in-chief, noitaminA) about the current state of the anime industry. Enjoy. (Again, all emphasis is the original author’s.)

Q: Why is noitaminA interested in anime originals?

Ooyama (O): Depending on the production staff, sometimes it takes two to three years to get an original anime from the drawing board to broadcast. Guilty Crown was first envisioned in 2009, and it only started broadcasting in October of 2011. When we were planning out shows, neither Mr. Yamamoto nor myself were confident that we’d receive any original works, and we both wanted to challenge ourselves, so that’s where this all started.

There were quite a few original anime worth checking out in 2011, shows like Mahou Shoujo Madoka☆Madoka (hereinafter Madoka), Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai and Mawaru-Penguindrum. They came one after another, and perhaps part of this was coincidence, but I think quite a few producers understood that times were starting to change. In recent years, adapting best-selling light novels into an anime became the easiest way to create blockbusters, but anime originals are definitely becoming a new trend.

Aki (A): If you look at the anime space, sharing and fan communication have become important. It’s no longer about enjoying things you like alone. It’s about taking your passion for a show and sharing it with everyone else. This, in turn, spurred consumption of whole bundles of goods. I’d say the big change occurred around the time Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu was airing.

O: Yeah, 2005 or 2006.

A: The big contributors to this change were video sharing sites like YouTube and Nico Nico Douga. Works like Haruhi re-arranged their source materials in radical ways, which drew comment from a lot of people. Stuff like Haruhi, which was pretty bizzarre at times, could be cut and re-pasted into MADs and other derivative media and shared together. That’s how the light novel boom started.

I’d say that Madoka marked the next big shift in the industry. We used Twitter extensively to promote the show, and there was an abnormally large amount of chatter about Madoka on Twitter. We felt that sites like Youtube and Nico had been replaced by Twitter. Everyone would discuss and guess what they thought would happen next. It was a new way of enyjoing anime. I think it might be fair to say that users are starting to tire of light novel adaptations and the patterns of consumption that light novels dictate. I can’t project that far into the future, but I think it’s interesting that the strengths of original anime are really starting to shine through. Again, it’s hard to say when current consumption patterns will be unseated. Look at Fate/Zero. The entire plot’s out there for everyone to see, yet people still love it because of its high production values and its fidelity to its source material.

O: Yeah, definitely.

A: I think we’d also be able to receive quite a few reactions by not simply focusing on how fans are interacting with each other outside of specific works, but also by vigorously resisting current trends. We need to make sure that anime, as a medium in general, is viewed favourably as soon as possible. That’s why we have the confidence to challenge ourselves with original works. We [Good Smile Company] believe in figurine collectors and the anime market at large. I’m sure Aniplex feels the same way.

O: Good Smile Company is the leading figurine producer in Japan right now. And like them, we here at Aniplex are incredibly grateful to our viewers for responding favourably to the quality of our products, especially those works in which we push ourselves. Of course, the bar of quality is being raised every day. The risk of a project backfiring on us is becoming larger and larger.

A: At Good Smile Company, we have this informal set of standards, something we call “Good Smile Quality.” We’re always erring on the side of higher quality. I think that’s necessary if we want consumers to trust us, but that increase in quality may lead to total industry collapse. In the entertainment and media space, consumers continually demand higher quality, but they’re also hostile to price increases. At some point, cost outweighs revenue, and that’s when everything ends. We’re getting closer and closer to that point.

Madoka is transformative because it doesn’t need to rely upon any of the market forces currently in play. It wipes the slate clean. There’s no trade-off between quality and cost, no use of price as a heuristic for quality, mainly because it’s a radically new product. I visited Sanjigen, a studio that specializes in 3D animation, and they felt similarly. I’ve been investing in Ultra Super Pictures (new joint venture animation studio, a joint project between Ordet, Trigger and Sanjigen, with funding provided by Good Smile Company, Max Factory, Bushiroad, Nitro+ and pixiv). There’s going to be a lot of foreign investment from now on, so I would really like there to be more interaction with foreign works. If this changes anything, I’m sure it’ll be very interesting, but I don’t think one can find success in the short-term by engaging foreign audiences. However, I think such engagement is inevitable. I was the one who came up with the name Ultra Super Pictures (laughs). I wanted a name that no native speaker of English would ever come up with. It’s quintessentially Japanese, yet English-speakers abroad would find it amusing and memorable.

Yamamoto (Y): Social media isn’t simply changing the way viewers respond to our works, it’s changing the ways that anime is being created. Black★Rock Shooter is a perfect example of this. Once the various connections between the project’s creators became visible, they all ended up engaging and befriending each other on a personal level. Such an environment allowed the series to develop organically.

A: If you stand back and really look at what Aniplex is doing, you’ll see that they’re excellent at picking out people with potential and following up with them. I was very surprised that Aniplex, as a distributor, took on a role that’s traditionally reserved for production companies. I’m sure many creators out there feel a greater amount of self-confidence because of that. Is there any sense that it’s easier to seek out talent at Aniplex, because it’s easier for creators to see the fruits of their own labour?

O: Oh yeah, definitely. I really wish we could start approaching creators on Twitter. That way, we’re interacting with them person-to-person, and not as a corporation. Production companies have been exceptionally good at sniffing out new talent simply by observing the dialogue occurring between anime creators. Even though I work at Aniplex, it’s become really easy for me to casually reach out to creators on a personal level, without regard to my corporate affiliation.

Y: Speaking of connections, it’s become much easier to gauge people’s personalities. As a result, the relationships between corporations has changed as well. Since the start of noitaminA, we’ve gained two strong supporters, which I’m really happy about. Fuji Television has traditionally been weak in the anime space. Both Aniplex and Good Smile Company work in anime-related distribution, but my industry is broadcasting. Instead of spending my time analyzing industry trends and chasing after them, I believe it’s much more important to utilize broadcasting as a tool to continually push the envelope of anime culture. That was the birth of noitaminA. 

The benefit of the Internet is that it’s readily available. There’s no need to record shows. At the same time, there’s too much freedom on the Internet, so it’s harder for shows to generate buzz if they’re constantly available for viewing. When Madoka was broadcast exclusively on TV, there was an explosion of dialogue about the show; however, when it was broadcast on the web, reactions were much more muted. Television forces people to follow a strict timeline, and the Internet amplifies discussion and comment. That’s the purpose of the Internet. Mr. Ooyama is always talks about how local channels broadcast anime at different times, which allows the Internet to draw viewers away from TV broadcasts. I’d like to figure out a way to improve this situation.

O: People would like to talk about topical issues at the “right time”. Now that there’s a platform for real-time conversation, viewers want to be watching the same thing at the same time. That’s how you generate a lot of conversation.

A: Since everything on the Internet is quantifiable, it means that one could easily manipulate impressions and opinions about any given subject. This is a frightening prospect for those of us working in media. On the flip side, since ordinary viewers can’t access viewership numbers for TV shows in real-time, it becomes harder for them to get a sense of whether what they’re watching is popular or not. There’s a saying on the Internet: “If it’s not popular on the Internet, it’s not popular in real life.”

O: Speaking of numbers, we’re starting to see consumers take a keen interest in them, almost as much as the creators themselves. People are starting to compare numbers to see if the shows they like are popular when compared to other ones. Fans have become much more competitive.

A: If you look at Guilty Crown and Black★Rock Shooter, they’re both pretty indicative of these trends. Their origination, their creative staff, the language of both series… all of it’s very edgy. I wonder how the media and consumers will respond to these series? They’re both fairly hardcore, so there’s definitely a possibility that people will reject them flat-out. If they do, it’s game over (laughs).

O: The world of anime is constantly shifting. More than anything else, I hope that from these two projects, we’ll be able to find new talent, new stars to represent our medium as we move towards a new age.

Aki Takanori is the CEO of Good Smile Company. He is a member of Black★Rock Shooter’s production staff, and is also involved in a variety of other animation-related ventures.

Ooyama Ryou is a producer, currently affiliated with Aniplex. Previous works include Full Metal Alchemist, Guilty Crown and others.

Yamamoto Kouji is the “Editor-in-Chief” of the noitaminA programming block at Fuji Television. His works include Black★Rock Shooter and Eden of the East.

This interview originally printed in SWITCH, Vol. 30 No. 2 (Feb 2012). Translated by Akira.

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