Anime and manga are virtually inseparable terms. In fact, were it not for the actual act of animation, I’m sure they would be nearly indistinguishable from one another. They share the same style, the same themes, the same fan base, but what does this relationship mean for anime? Does it open up new markets and opportunities for the industry? Or does it pigeonhole animators and stifle creative thought?
Before I go any further, I’d like to make clear that my knowledge on this subject is incredibly limited, and this isn’t meant to be a conclusive research paper. Most of what I talk about below is merely speculation and educated guesses.
Talking about the financial connection between anime and manga seems like a good place to start considering the importance of being able to pull a profit on a project. An average episode of anime costs about $150,000 to make which adds up to just under $2,000,000 for a thirteen episode season. In the grand scheme of things, that’s actually relatively cheap. A single episode of network television can run for as much as $1,000,000 with some shows being significantly higher than that (think eight digits).
Unfortunately this extreme variation is just as great on the revenue side of the business. Unlike network television, anime has a very small audience which means far fewer sales and less money in staff members’ pockets. For this reason, a lot of anime end up never turning a profit at all with one long-time executive estimating that only 70% of shows ever see a cent of earnings. I wish I could say that passion and creativity can sustain a business, but in the real world, nobody wants to lose money when they work. Something has to give, and that will take the form of either a price change and increased revenue or lower quality and reduced costs.
With the advent of the internet, a large portion of viewers have found a way around price increases. Many of us download anime and subtitles for free off of a variety of sites so anime producers never see any revenue. But can you really blame anime fans for never buying DVDs and Blu-rays? Anime is often prohibitively expensive for your average viewer, so only a small portion of the audience (those with money and/or an obsession) are actually paying for the cost of the anime. The reason behind these high prices is an antiquated business model centered on rental shops. Back in the day, rental shops were willing to pay a premium for anime DVDs that they could then rent out to dozens of customers to recoup their costs. The rental shops were eventually run out of business, but the defunct pricing system remained. At this point in time, increasing prices might boost revenue, but it’s just as likely that it’ll be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and absolutely decimate sales.
The other option is to lower your prices and hope that attracts more customers. With everybody downloading anime for free anyway, this strategy is probably more likely to reduce revenues even more (you can’t undercut free). On top of that, it will kill your customer relations when you have to inevitably raise prices back to their original values.
In reality, we’ll probably see a combination of changing prices and reduced quality as the industry struggles to stay afloat.
Manga is significantly less costly than anime when it comes to creation and distribution. It happens to be so inexpensive that there is actually a thriving market for amateurs who draw their own manga and self-publish. Lower costs are followed by lower prices (less revenue), but I think it’s safe to assume to that even if manga don’t always turn a profit, producers and distributors are far more likely to take risks in the hope of a big hit. In my opinion, this leads to a more stable marketplace producing better material, not to mention a wider fan base more willing to pay the lower prices.
The fan base is really where the financial connection between manga and anime becomes much more defined. Manga has a clear advantage in sheer numbers, and some of this benefit falls to anime in the form of adaptations. Let’s say there’s an incredibly popular manga. This manga attracts a massive following, so some anime executive decides to jump on the cash cow bandwagon and create an adaptation. Theoretically, this leads to the production of a high quality anime which is good for everyone, but what’s important to the industry is the huge increase in sales. Now, instead of only a few anime fans supporting the entire project, you’ll likely have a portion of the manga fans making purchases as well. While this might be a sporadic occurrence, it puts a spotlight on the industry which means more profits and (hopefully) more quality anime.
Hit anime adaptations of popular manga are wonderful for a time, but I’m convinced that the current dependence on them is unhealthy and damaging to the long-run sustainability of the industry.
A sculpture is not a painting. A painting is not a photograph. A photograph is not a symphony. A manga is not an anime. These might seem obvious, but in some sense, don’t all these statements directly refute the idea of successful anime adaptations? Sure, some creative works might fit well into different mediums, but the original is virtually always better than the copy. An art form demands original ideas in order to be successful, and anime is seriously lacking in this department.
As an American, I regularly see films that are based on books. A common response to these films is something along the lines of, “read the book, it’s much better”. This usually comes across as pretentious, but it has a grain of truth to it. Books are only written words, so they must rely on their readers to mentally create the world being described on the pages. On top of that, books have the ability to portray every characters’ thoughts which is often avoided in movies because long-winded monologues generally kill the flow. Similar situations are common in the relationship between anime and manga as well.
Anime can and should be fluid, colorful and full of energy. Simply put, anime is meant to be animated. Characters should express themselves through body language and facial expressions. I shouldn’t have to watch a still frame for five minutes while I listen to characters drone on about some plot point. This might be excusable in manga where everything is viewed through still images, but it should be avoided like the plague in anime.
“But animation is expensive!”
Yes, animation can be expensive, but there are ways around this. One show that immediately comes to mind is Hidamari Sketch. It managed to inject energy into its presentation without relying on fluid animation. It maintained an illusion of animation which is completely acceptable. For all it’s faults, SHAFT still consistently gains my respect because it has a style that has come to define anime for me. I’m not suggesting that every studio should go out and try to mimic SHAFT, but I think they can all learn an important lesson from what SHAFT does.
Until the anime industry can consistently stand on its own creative merit, it will always be in danger of failing completely. In a way, manga has kept the anime industry from going belly up. But it has also acted as an enabler–giving the industry an excuse to stagnate.
I’m sure I could go on, but I entered unfamiliar waters a long time ago, so this seems like as good of place to stop as any. I wish I could give you a definite conclusion about the direction the anime industry is taking. If I could, I would fly over to Japan tomorrow and make millions by rebuilding the industry to what it once was, but I don’t have any answers.
What do you think about the state of anime? Am I being too pessimistic? Do you know of a feasible solution to the problems I’ve detailed above? Do the problems I’ve described even exist in the first place? But in all seriousness, I have no idea what I’m talking about. What do you think?