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Friend or Foe? – Thoughts on the Anime-Manga Relationship

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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.

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Money 

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.

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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.

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Creativity

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.

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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?

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6 thoughts on “Friend or Foe? – Thoughts on the Anime-Manga Relationship

  1. I can’t find the link, but in a interview, SHAFT studio actually said they spends double on their animation. If I believe correctly, they stated Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko cost around the equivalent of $5.2 million. Since they baited people with promises of a second season if they brought the DVD/BD’s, I am sure they did not nearly get that amount back in revenue or for that matter, profit. As for the DVD/BD sales and increases, the animation companies do not have a say in that. I remember Danny Choo was saying in an interview that the pricing is arbitrary handle by the stores in Japan. Here, in the U.S, that does not happen very often since the companies have to pay out licensing fees, so the prices are kept at a reasonable price to encourage purchasing. That is about all I can say on the money issue, since I do not know much myself.

    I wouldn’t say that the manga industry is enabling or stagnating anime, but rather animation studios are just having trouble finding out what works. Things are not like they were 5 or 10 years ago, so they are trying to adapt to a whole new market and generation of consumers. I am not saying that studios should keep creating manga/vn/game adaptions, but it is better than creating 14-25 original series a year that might not do so well. If that happens, then they would be losing not only money, but time, effort, and their customers. Studios could do a better job with releasing more originals than adaptions, but its hard to say that with certain without knowing what they are focusing on in the home market. Besides, most of the industry figures are getting older and stuck in their ways. They are trying to train the next generation, but that is going take some time. Regardless, the market is fairly well than everyone think it is.

    • There’s definitely a delicate balance between originality and profitability in any entertainment industry. I just think that anime has leaned a bit to far away from the originality end of the spectrum. Obviously the economic recession hasn’t helped them at all, but entertainment created solely to make a profit won’t remain entertaining for long.

      Like you said, things are changing and the industry is having a lot of trouble trying to find its place in a new market. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re going to see a lot of studios go bankrupt before things get better. Hopefully there will be enough interest in the next generation to fill the gaps that they leave behind.

      • Bankruptcy is foreseeable, but for some studios, that won’t be happening for awhile. I will agree that the industry is pulling away from originality, but in some cases that departure isn’t bad. For example, I just done watching the last two eps of Girls und Panzer and was blown away. I haven’t read the manga or sure if they were true to the adaption, but it was great. Not sure how well the BD/DVD sales went, but imagined they did pretty well. However, I am sure the studios did not foresee it in the manner of making profit rather than seeing what works.

        Since the market caters to the there base of operations first, it is hard to say what the next generation will like vs the generation here and globally. I am sure we begin to see a shift in idealism and creativity as soon as the upcoming animators, directors, and project executives make their debut. So I am bit more optimistic in this respect, despite it could be a good thing or bad. Only time will tell…

  2. I think your point on manga possibly stifling anime creativity is a valid one, with a few caveats. First, it’s really all down to money. Anime studios need to make cash, and the way things are now makes it really hard to do so. What can they do to make things better? I’ve thought about it, and it’s hard to see many alternatives at the moment, given their costs and the niche market they target, other than the two you mention – price and quality changes (and as Moonlitasteria said, not all of this is on the animation studio side of things). Another possible strategy would be to try and expand the fan base, but this is a more nebulous goal with a multitude of possible approaches. Any more directed thoughts on your end?
    The second is that your point about manga stifling creativity is true, but in context. Given such a tight profit margin, using a conservative framework is all the more appealing. Reaching out to things that have been proven popular, whether manga/LN/VN/etc., is much more attractive than gunning for originality. Plus, it offers a potential synergistic effect of expanding a fan base and thus the total amount of consumers, which you noted. So the entire assortment of similar medium that target a similar group of people are in fact to blame. Actually, while I’m not exactly sure about Hollywood in terms of finances, I’m also noticing an increasing lack of originality in American movies. Could they be for similar reasons, or is it just the “standards get higher movies seem to get worse over time” effect?

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