Recent events have not been great for fans of certain Japanese entertainment. If you want to understand these trends in video games, anime, and other industries, there’s a blog post from a few years ago I’m pretty much just writing this post to bring attention to.
We have Konami seemingly almost abandoning traditional console game development, one of the worst weeks for traditional video games in Japan’s history, and now the Neon Genesis Evangelion creator predicting the fall of anime within a decade. Konami’s turn in particular has been a major milestone in a trend we’ve been seeing for years now of Japanese games turning away from the traditional games the dedicated fans like and towards the mobile games they hate. Then you’ve got many anime and Japanese games following art and narrative trends like “moe” that look increasingly creepy to a lot of people.
Néojaponisme chief editor and Tokyo-based writer W. David Marx did a massive five-part blog post in 2011 that does a great job explaining the whole thing. I linked it in a bullets section before but I really think it’s required reading for anyone miffed at the turn Japanese pop culture has taken in recent years, so I’m bringing more attention to it here.
The post is a few years old but most of it I think is still very relevant, at least the parts concerning games and anime. If you don’t currently have time to read the whole thing (I really suggest you do, however many sessions you have to take), I’m going to try to summarize the main points pertinent to these issues.
Basically, a lot of Japanese media is downsizing and getting so weird because it’s being forced to laser-target the absolute most devout domestic consumers at the expense of the mass market… because that mass market has less money than it used to. As the saying goes: It’s the economy, stupid!
I’m sure it’s pretty well-known Japan’s economy has been in either stagnation or decline since the early 90’s after the 80’s bubble economy burst. When you think about it that should naturally lead to a weakening of media output, especially in terms of exports. According to Marx, Japanese wages began to stagnate around 1997 which impacted the purchasing power of its mass market. When people have less money, they buy fewer things, including anime and games.
There are a whole lot of other factors plugging into what’s happened to game consoles over there — Japan’s transit-based lifestyle, western companies taking over the course of console gaming, etc. You could even argue the decline of Japanese console games is also happening to western console games — I don’t have the numbers right now but the overall number of retail console releases has gone way down in recent years, coming down to fewer but bigger titles. However, you can’t deny Japan’s economy is a factor in its weakening traditional game market, as Marx goes at length explaining.
According to the post, the only audiences left that still consume at a reliable rate are dedicated niches that define themselves through the act of consumption, including the “otaku.” Thus, those niches have become the most powerful consumer block in an economy without a mass market core. If you think all those new games and anime centering around girls who look like pre-teens are weird, most mainstream Japanese would probably agree, but that’s what the otaku audience wants and they pretty much decide what goes at this point.
Marx and other sources go on to describe how anime sales in Japan have morphed into a system where companies depend on the few fans who are willing to pay nearly $100 for three episodes on a Blu-Ray disc, or $600 for a whole series. Many shows are made to sell posters and figures of individual cute characters to people who’ll cover their rooms in that stuff. Media that can’t even gain success with domestic mainstream audiences can’t be easily exported, and we’ve seen the results as all but a relative handful of Japanese games have become more and more niche-oriented.
When talking about anime, Hideaki Anno even links the problem to economic issues in Japan, going so far as to suggest other rising Asian economies might take its place. We’re already seeing the rise of Chinese and South Korean games (and TV shows in the case of Korea). It almost seems to be in parallel with how tech companies like Samsung have overcome the old Japanese tech giants like Sony.
I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re wondering just what’s happening to the Japanese video game industry, it’s pretty much a microcosm of broad economic shifts.