Japanator Discusses: Dai Sato rants on the state of anime


Hello, and welcome to the first installment of Japanator Discusses, a roundtable-style feature that we resort to when a topic - and the thoughts and commentary inspired by it - is too big for any one editor to monopolize.

Today's topic comes from earlier in the week, when storywriter Dai Sato vented some of his frustrations over the current state of the industry in Japan. And Sato's word carries weight, as he's one of the pens behind such works as Ergo Proxy, Wolf's Rain, Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Eureka 7, Samurai Champloo, and - perhaps most famous of all, Cowboy Bebop.

Sato had much to be concerned about, to say the least. He raised the issue of the industry's dependence on outsourcing "grunt" animation work to foreign subcontractors, to which he attributed a decline in consistent quality and a lack of investment in the actual production (since many subcontractors know next to nothing about what they're animating). He even stepped up to accuse Japanese studios of refusing to teach these foreign workers vital creative skills, out of a desire to keep Japan's position dominant.

And it wasn't just the establishment Sato had a bone to pick with. He went on to rail against the Japanese audience, which had "no respect for stories," noting early fan dismissals of Eureka 7 as an Evangelion-clone and the lack of a Japanese box set for Ergo Proxy (contrasted to its presence overseas). The audience was now more interested in cute characters and materialistic escapism rather than dealing with greater social issues. As such, the industry which caters to them has become "super-establishment" and "sold out".

Despite declaring that anime "will die out in Japan in a few decades", Sato vowed that he would still continue to work on it in attempts to avert that bleak fate. Hope still held out, he said, in manga and the independent doujinshi scene. 

Rather bold statements, don't you think? A more detailed write-up of the rant is available at Otaku2. I recommend checking it out before seeing what I, Jeff, Bob, Mike and Brad had to say about Sato's gloomy predictions under the cut. Taken in light of Yamakan's own statements, how do you think anime's doing nowadays? Tell us in the comments!

Josh Tolentino: Sato seems to be decrying, among other things, what he perceives as a dearth of creativity in the anime industry. He criticizes companies placing priority into characters rather than narratives. Though he doesn't openly say it or name names, the moe trend is almost certainly one of the sources of his frustration. Moe characters and moe anime, who generally exist to imbue an "atmosphere" (hence the term "kuuki-kei"), rarely have a strong plot.

Is that happening? If it hasn't started yet, will moe eventually be a detriment to anime as a whole? Has the growth of moe endangered the future of plot-driven shows?

Jeff Chuang: It's happening, for sure. But I think it is a generational shift. When I hear about anime old-timers talk about their VHS days or about their LD collection, I wonder if they understand how people 10 or 20 years younger than them are watching anime. Time has moved on, and so have the things that are popular today versus 10 years ago.

I think it's important to note what Sato is truly saying--he isn't decrying kuuki-kei anime, because I believe he thinks anyone should be free to enjoy it. I think Sato himself may enjoy it. I read it more along the lines of what Tomino was saying last year, about how game makers should do something positive and constructive with their works. Sato is saying more or less the same thing about anime, and how it has lost that subversive, counter-cultural aspect. Instead of pumping out generic titles day in and day out, I think he wants writers to come up with more challenging, socially-relevant shows.

Josh: True, looking at some seasons it's hard not to agree that more relevant shows are needed, but one wonders if that hasn't always been the case.

Dire as it may sound, I can't personally think of a huge amount of properties expressly designed "to have a message" that sold especially well. There are of course a few great exceptions in every "generation", but to be perfectly cynical about it, the term "starving artist" has always had a basis in reality. "Subversive" and "counter-culture", (i.e. strongly auteuristic) works are almost naturally in the minority.

There's also the issue of perspective. The properties he shows frustration over (namely Eureka Seven and Ergo Proxy) are ones he helped work on personally. That they didn't sell as well as he had has perhaps convinced him that the things he prioritizes are not the ones people are interested in, irrespective of the state of the industry as a whole. In a word: there could be an element of *ahem* "butthurt" in his rationale.

That aside, another interesting point he raised was the issue of outsourcing. There was an almost conspiracy-theory vibe about it when he seemed to assert that Japanese studios were purposefully denying their outsourcing studios the creative skills necessary to to craft great stories, out of some kind of nationalist "protectionism".

Jeff: Outsourcing is something that happens all across First-World industries today. But I think what Sato is saying has some merit. It's easy to buy that the Japanese animation industry itself neglect to treat its foreign workers right because they can't even pay Japan's domestic animators much better. Not that is what Sato was saying exactly...

But when was the last time we spotted a Korean name in a manga or an anime, as a part of the core creative team (for example: direct, storyboard, write, compose, design)? Does Kunihiko Ryo count? Peter Chung? I guess there were a few, but only a few, considering how much inbetween work goes to Korea.

I'm with you about Sato's fustration over the lack of popularity, Josh. I think it's easy to think the way Sato and some moe-bashers do when there were something like 5-10 times more anime being produced in the late '00s as there were in the late '90s. Invariably a lot of that was trashy adaptation cash-outs. I hope that fact doesn't stop Sato (or anyone) from keeping up the good work, though.

Mike LeChevallier: I'm juggling my feelings on this. Part of me believes as if Sato is just talking out of his ass; trying to stir up controversy for the hell of it. When you look at the overall scope of what he is implying, there's not a whole lot of shimmering value to what he is ranting about. Sure, there are countless shows out there that are rehashes of things that have been done before, but there are also ones that are unarguably done better than their forefathers. Sato complains that people are going for simplistic, brainless essentially devoid-of-plot shows like K-On!.  This is true. What he fails to recognize is that the show has to be doing something right for so many folks to be into it. What Sato also doesn't note is that his work has influenced many forthcoming creators of anime. So, maybe the kids didn't eat up Ergo Proxy. So what? He's not retiring because of it. He's not butt-poor. Suck it up. Sato himself resides within the top tier of storywriters--the dude has been around the block. Without Cowboy Bebop, where would we be? Honestly. Answer me that.

Sato's statement that anime is a "super establishment system where nothing can be changed" or ushered into a new era is just plain inconsistent with the times. Things do shift, and rather constantly. Look at the work of Gainax, for example. Sure, they bite off
themselves in nearly everything they produce...but you can't argue against the continuing originality that is present within their projects. The anime artists can do what they want. Period. The Hand of the Man need not silence them, as anime and all its counterparts, whether Sato wishes to look closely enough to acknowledge it, are popular. They are fresh. They are now, and will be until the sun freezes over.

Bob Muir: I'm slightly disappointed in the way Sato formed his argument, because only referencing his own work extremely undermines his case. And yet, as I was reading it, I can't help but strongly agree with his stance on what's happening to story in anime. I believe he is finding fault not with kuuki-kei anime, since it is a producer's right to make something that will sell, but with the fans for shifting their desires over to shows like that. K-ON isn't necessarily doing something right, it's it's just existing in a marketplace that has shifted expectations towards shows like that. This is incredibly disheartening, as I originally was drawn to anime as a child due to the fact that it was telling interesting stories in ways that American cartoons wouldn't even dream of attempting (beyond a few).

As a society, we have been attracted to stories since the days of cavemen. The art of storytelling evolved, but our desire to "find out what happens" has kept us interested. Putting a focus on strong characterization can be part of that, and I would never turn that down. But crafting the product based entirely on characters, with no regard for proper storytelling? It boggles the mind where that could have came from. Even American cartoons never attempted something like that. And yet, we have a wave of kuuki-kei anime which people will actually defend by saying things like "it's really about the characters, the plot's not important." (Even I made this claim once in regards to .hack//SIGN.)

What! The plot is always important! Since when did our standards drop so far that we are willing to accept the mere prescence of well-developed characters in a world as a sufficient substitute for a plot? The fact that the work of Sato (and others like him) isn't more popular is incredibly concerning to me.

As for the issue of whether outsourcing is an issue, I'll admit that it's strange to not see more collaboration with Korean creative-types, especially since they've brought some interesting artistic ideas to the table with manhwa. At the same time, I don't think fans are helping the situation much. I can't think of the last time I heard of someone reading a manhwa, and I've subconsciously avoided it as well. Maybe we have been trained to believe that anything similar to manga that isn't right-to-left isn't "authentic" enough? Either way, the only major collaboration I can think of in recent years is Ragnarok: The Animation, and that was a loose adaptation of the online game's atmosphere, not the original manhwa's story.

Brad Rice: I understand where Sato is coming from with his argument that anime itself is becoming less Japanese. A majority of the work is being done by overseas studios, with the above-the-line talent (director, writer, seiyuu) being the main focus here in Japan. A situation like this creates a slipshod and incomplete product, because everyone isn't necessarily on the same page, and there isn't a communal environment that nurtures new talent.

We've seen complaints in the JANICA debates that there isn't any new blood coming into the animation industry, and this trend is really what's caused it. It's harder for people to get in on the ground level and join in this business. If companies started bringing back jobs to the Japanese animation industry, then I think we'd see a flourish of more creative and substantial works because of all the talent working together on these projects.

If you notice, we've been seeing some really stellar stuff come out of college students as of recent, haven't we? That's the same sort of creative environment that needs to exist in these studios, which I really think isn't there anymore.

Hey, haven't I heard this argument before? Something about "stop outsourcing jobs overseas..."

Josh: I have to wonder, what exactly does Sato mean when he claims that anime "will die out in a few decades"? Surely he can't mean that people will stop making animated works altogether?

And even if Japan were deliberately withholding assistance on the creative side of the production, foreign workers will (eventually) make use of their own homegrown talent, augmented by the skills they gain doing all that grunt stuff. Just look back a few decades to when Japan itself was the subject of scrutiny as an outsourcing haven for backend work that Americans and Europeans needed done.

To echo some of what Jeff said at the beginning, it seems like a generational shift of sorts. And if that's true, and anime is becoming less "Japanese" as the true, "globalized" roots of its production become more apparent and China and Korea rise to prominence, what does that mean for the foreign consumer? Will Japanator eventually need to grow "Koreator" and "Chinator" spinoffs?

Brad: To respond to your first point, Josh, I think Sato highlights the increasingly diminishing core that buys anime. It's at about 550,000 people, if I recall correctly, that will buy a title with force. So, if shows don't pander to that demographic, then they'll be a commercial flop. So, if that base continues to shrink (which it only naturally would), then anime as it is currently going could easily die out.

Really, there just needs to be a shock to the system that produces works that draw in all these other people who don't watch the moe stuff, or who didn't normally watch anime at all. Honestly, I don't see why they couldn't increase their core base by 10x if they tried.

[And that's just what we think! Tell us what you have to say in the comments! Is the doom-and-gloom warranted? -Josh]

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Josh Tolentino
Josh TolentinoManaging Editor   gamer profile

Josh is Japanator's Managing Editor, and contributes to Destructoid as well, as the network's premier apologist for both Harem Anime and Star Trek: Voyager For high school reasons, he's called "u... more + disclosures



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