There's always been slow years in any entertainment medium, or even in a historical context. That’s just life. However, with the topic of anime for the last ten years or so, I have to say that quality products are down to a minimal trickle. The age of Akira has passed.
Like any complex phenomenon, multiple factors are at work. But first I’d simply like to highlight what anime used to mean for me. I was born in 1989, so while much groundbreaking anime had already come out, it wasn’t really until 1998 or thereabouts that I actually recognized what anime was. You see, collectively we as a culture had been watching anime since the 60’s with Astro Boy and the 70’s with Speed Racer… but we all just thought that they were drawn weird. Even Voltron in the 80’s suffered with this assumption.
By 1998 Pokemon finally came out, and with that came the licensed anime. Pokemon, as ridiculously simplistic as it was, was the first show to have all the hallmarks of anime on American television. Then the floodgates opened on Cartoon Network. Ronin Warriors, Outlaw Star, Gundam Wing, Rurouni Kenshin, Yu Yu Hakusho, and of course, Dragon Ball Z.
Anime back then had humor, sure. But if you look at the overall arc of its style from the 80’s to the end of the 90’s it mostly had one thing in common: being badass and having an unapologetic macho streak. Being the non-historian that I am, I suppose I’d place the beginning and end to awesome anime as a general trend from 1984’s Fist of the North Star to 1998’s Cowboy Bebop.
Then you get into the stuff they never dared show on Toonami, which ahead of its time as it was, still was a children’s programming block. Radical content like Akira, Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, Vampire Hunter D, Demon City Shinjuku, and Wicked City blew away my teenage mind when I brought them home from Blockbuster. It wasn’t just the bloodshed, it was the manic yet masterful way these titles were drawn. Not with fancy computer algorithms either, but hand-drawn frame by frame just like the great Disney animators of old.
Now with big exceptions like the Hellsing Ultimate reboot and Attack on Titan, I really think mainstream anime has lost its way. No longer can I show a bunch of friends a new anime and expect their jaws to hit the floor… instead, I can expect a shrug. Which is fitting, because that’s what Japan itself seems to be doing. Katsuhiro Otomo and Satoshi Kon have been replaced with Ouran High School Host Club and Lucky Star. Unfortunately, this is not an aberration, it’s the status-quo now.
I’m not that smart, but if I could, I’d give Japan some advice. That being, stop overworking your animators like glorified sweatshops and listen to their creative input for once. Stop producing garbage for the lowest common audience. Yes, stupid high school comedies might be good for business on paper, but it’s a dead end. Go back to your roots. Don’t just make everything CGI. Tell a story worth telling. Finally, be badass again.