It takes a lot of effort to know what is not popular–what is big and exciting for a niche is often invisible from anyone outside of it. In the rare case, a passer-by can walk around a sprawling and diverse neighborhood and spot a poster at a local theater saying something like this. But I struggle to think of some other means in which someone who is not actively seeking to know a very niche subculture can come to know about it.
On the other hand, everyone knows about the big, mainstream, truly popular stuff. It’s what is on TV when we turn it on, or big video or banner ads at major sites that we read online. It’s what my coworkers talk about during lunch. That stuff is, again, truly popular. Even if what is truly popular often comes across not so different than the very niche when examined purely on content. I mean, what’s special about K-drama or anime versus American soaps and TV serials? I’m not entirely convinced, but some people do consume one or another interchangeably. Maybe for someone who watches a lot of TV shows and is familiar with anime, s/he might miss watching anime after a long sabbatical. You know, the people who watch anime very occasionally (5 IP or less a year) who occasionally asks another friend about what’s good or popular these days.
Even in this case, there’s a wide gulf between anime and even the trashiest trash Hollywood mass markets to the world. It’s not to say a 20%-scoring film on Rotten Tomatoes is any good, but a work like that is infinitely more “mainstream” entertainment than all but the most remarkable anime. By the same metric we could say that sort of crap is popular. Did it gross $10M in the box office after a month? Yes? Well that’s like, 4 1-cour TV anime series worth of money. It’s just a matter of time Happy Science gets a TV show.
Joking aside, I think I’m just trying to build the case to explain why asking anime to be more “mainstream” is basically asking it to do the impossible. It’s just nostalgia talking. I think if Pretty Cure can last another 10 years it would’ve truly achieve “mainstream” even if it is already mainstream by most definitions. Isn’t this what these people are asking for (admittedly now more strawman than ever)?
Or is it a fanservice-oriented, late-night, adult-only sort of fair like OreImo I mean Game of Thrones? Oh they’re different? Yeah, 50-60 million dollars different. Okay, it was a joke, but I think the core point stands. Call me jaded but what makes mainstream is merely either a delusion in terms of some rosy old-lens of a time when you didn’t know any better, and a lot of money. The most expensive anime TV series ever made only goes up to 10M or so, and I’m not sure if it was considered mainstream by any empirical means.
If we just simply delete the notion that things could be mainstream and boil it down to simply an exercise of finding out how big of a demographic you can get to watch your show, anime in the 21st century comes across as something not so much regressive, but forward-thinking. Let’s set aside the fundamental problems with anime and the way it’s funded–isn’t the current model of anime basically the shotgun vertical approach? You have a bijillion IP going live every year (there were over 200 anime TV and movie titles last year), each title is comparably inexpensive to produce, and sold to niches. It’s like cable and satellite TV in the US–given its capability for great number of channels simultaneously, it encourages programming diversity.* (Here is a list of all TV shows/movies/miniseries that returned and debuted in the US in 2012.) It makes you wonder: a similar list in Japanese would mean ~half of new/returning/ending/reruns of 2012 are anime, wouldn’t it?
Of course, I’ve also ignored all the problems with this model and its limitations. But from a commercial speech diversity/proliferation perspective, anime is really good as a platform. I mean, again, Happy Science? OreImo and the proliferation of the light novel drivel adaptation? Is this what “anime is a medium not a genre” really means? It spans from the highest high-brow creators (see: Yuasa’s Kickstarter) to the most base stuff you can find in a porn shop (joke: maybe see: Yuasa’s Kickstarter). It stretches from high budget, multi-million Ghibli stuff to independently made stuff on Youtube (as thin as commercial speech gets). Because it is made so cheaply on average, it employs cheap looks to tell its stories, and thus enable more people to use these cheap techniques, and enables more people to be able to churn it for profit. It’s a separate question if people actually do make a profit or not, I guess.
In a sense, anime’s distribution problem overseas in the last 10+ years also has to do with that until the west copes with New Media (caps), there wasn’t a stable distribution channel for anime, at least a truly sustainable one. This is why when Suncoast and Borders blew up, or when Best Buy scaled it back, things went to hell. Today retail is heavily online focused, and the rest is being picked up by streaming and digital services–not all that different than other niche programming. And maybe that’s how it is suppose to be. Things like Toonami coming back only signifies that diversity (and to its credit, the anime niche as well) has only increased in the net aggregate on cable television, enabling Cartoon Network to expand back to the future of first-world-focused, for-profit media.
* I think in an earlier post (now in the ether) I’ve written about why increasing number in channels increases diversity, but if you want to know about how it works please ask in the comments. Or any other questions really.