It’s been twenty years since Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira changed the way the UK watched Japanese cartoons. After 1991, a Japanese origin became something to be trumpeted: a selling point. But could that all be about to change again?
My usual haunts aren’t there any more; old-fashioned browsing is becoming a thing of the past. Tower Records has gone. The Virgin megastores have gone. The HMV-Waterstones-Fopp conglomerate is now practically a UK monopoly, and still struggling. Fearing the worst, some video companies are losing the art of finding out what their audience wants. Or rather, they still have an audience. But it isn’t me any more.
Perhaps we have passed a tipping point. Some of the new blurbs can’t be bothered to tell me about directors I might like, or actors I follow. Far better, it seems, to come up with a new, zappy title, hide the word “subtitled”, and hope it shifts from the bargain shelves in Sainsbury’s. Bang Rajan 2 has been retitled Blood of Warriors: Sacred Ground, because that way it doesn’t sound like a Thai sequel. Pacific Battleship Yamato has sneaked out in the UK with the “Yamato” part rendered in smaller type, as if afraid of scaring people off. R-Point has just been re-released as Ghosts of War, with its Korean origins carefully shunted into the shadows. It seems that it really is more profitable to take a DVD downmarket to appeal to impulse buyers in the supermarkets.
This brutally realist approach essentially gives up on specialist audiences. Terrifyingly, it even seems to make sound business sense. The sales figures for these films compare very favourably with those for bespoke, arty editions targeted at “fans”. The number of customers who will actively seek out a Kong Su-chang film, or ask for R-Point by name is greatly outweighed by the number of passing shoppers who will say: “Cool! Zombie Soldiers!” (Even if there aren’t any zombies in R-Point). The nature of the sales pitch has been reframed from cognoscenti to ignoramuses: less marketing, more downmarketing.
Japanese animation has been here before. Anime pre-Akira endured thirty years with rewritten soundtracks, altered storylines and dumbed-down titles. That was the age of the Hidden Imports, when you could see anime on TV, but only shoved unceremoniously in the kiddie cartoon slots. If companies stop caring about consumers who care, then they stop advertising in specialist magazines. If they start categorising not by directors and stars, but by nothing but broad genres (“WAR!”, “GHOSTS!”), we could lose the kind of tagging data that makes it possible for Amazon to know you might like a particular movie. They could give up on DVD extras, because the new audience won’t want a commentary or a making-of.
Look to live-action for a scary glimpse of anime’s possible future. Are we on the brink of a new Dark Age? Back to the bargain bins…?