The Anime Elitist’s Paradox

By definition, elitists are those who think that some  people have more worthy opinions than the common man. That an elite of intelligent, tasteful, educated, and experienced opinion leaders are more qualified to tell what is right and what is wrong, than a random mass of people. “Coincidentially”, most elitists consider themselves to be exceptionally intelligent, tasteful, educated, and experienced.

Normally, in media fandoms, elitism is used to describe a rethoric that is revolving around the fear that a shallow, ignorant audience member’s preference is worth as much as a fan’s who truly cares about the medium in question, then the resulting works will be dumbed down, “pandering to the Lowest Common Denominator“, for the sake of making more money.

For example, a video game elitist would be someone who is worried about casual games, such as party games and mobile games, being too shallow,  and believes that the preferences of hardcore gamers who are ready to spend several hours with getting into games with engaging narrative and complex gameplay, should matter more than some soccer mom who wanted to pass a few minutes fooling around with the most easily accessible game that she found.

A movie elitist would be someone who believes that more people should get informed about a movie’s quality from respectable reviewers, instead of just giving in to the hype and blindly watching everything with an eye-catching trailer. Also, they find it worrisome that people are preffering familiar IPs instead of trying something new, because they don’t want to bother getting familiar with new settings, not even if it costs innovation.

And here is the twist: From this perspective… the anime industry is already an elitist’s wet dream as it is! Everything from the business model of late night TV airings funded by later disk sales, to the target audience being a devoted “otaku” fandom, is designed to be the best possible system for minimalizing the damage from uninvested viewers with a “casual” attitude, that would limit the stories’ potential.

Imagine, what would your average hardcore gaming elitist say about proposing such a system? To make all video games freely accessible for everyone from a slightly inconvinient location, without the creators profiting from it, and then allow them to earn back their production costs by selling merch, and collector DVDs for the few most devoted fans, who choose to throw extra money at them? What would a movie elitist say about everyone being allowed to enter the cinema for free, and the ones who want to reward the creators for the splendid product, could pay at the exit?

Probably they would say something along the lines of: “Yay! the tasteless masses can watch whatever they want, now I will dictate where the industry should go. No more deceptively catchy advertisements tricking people out of their money! No more “safe IPs”killing fresh content! No more pandering to soccer moms, and teenage girls, and jocks, and old people, and the bleeding hearts, and the values crowd at the same time, so the story will end up being dull as ditchwater. Now they can start pandering to me!”  

And to tell the truth, they would be right. As disgusting as their arrogance appears to be, I’m certainly sympathetic towards the elitists’ point about how being mainstream takes away potential to be experimental, quirky, and deep with issues that a larger audience wouldn’t care about. And in the anime industry that is being funded by otaku, the theory works. Depending on devoted fans really solves some of these problems. For example, have you ever stopped to wonder why are we not watching the 25th season of Suzumiya Haruhi right now? Or the 13th season of K-on?? In a medium aimed at the mainstream, we would be. There would be a continous demand from people who don’t care about anime in general, just want to continue that single title that they recognize. Compared to that, the otakudom at least tends to pick up some new things in every season, and quickly get bored with the old ones. Or have you ever stopped wondering, why there are so many ridiculously quirky anime series? Just in the season of writing this, there is one about a zombie girlfriend, one about an empathic connection through drool, one about Jazz in the 60’s and one about girls who are guns. Do you think that an audience of millions would be receptive to themes like these? Or do you think that the mainstream would be receptive to a show about the microeconomics of trading in a medieval fantasy world? Or to a cyberpunk crime mystery quoting sociologists and hard sci-fi writers?

So, the Anime Elitist won, right? We, who wanted the medium to go in that direction, should be constantly gloating about the perfect direction the anime industry is going in, and about the lucky anime fandom that got a medium tailor-made to it’s demands, right? Ha ha ha, wrong! The ugly truth is, that contrary to their self-identification, elitists don’t want anything to be influenced by “the elite”. They want  it to be influenced by their personal tastes. And you can always find something to be criticized. Remember Sturgeon’s Law! No matter how many original IPs there are, some of them are bound to be uninspired. No matter how many shows are using fresh themes, some of them will always be badly written. No matter if a show deals with obscure issues that you care about, it can be badly handled.

And that’s where the paradox kicks in: 

If you try to claim that your experience and devotion  makes you a more trustworthy opinion leader than the current consumers, then how do you explain that the current consumers themelves are pretty devoted and experienced, yet you still don’t like the result of their demands? There are two quick solutions for this:

The first one, is to use No True Scotsman, and Othering, to separate us, true anime fans (really yourself), from them, fake fans who are controlling the industry:

So if we anime fans, who are passionate enough to talk about anime, to discuss it, to trash it, defend it, review it and argue about it, if we’re not the market, then who is? Well, its quite frankly the people who don’t voice their opinions. It’s the people who quietly buy every spec of Anime, fanservice, moe merchandise. It’s the people who buy the anime hump pillows, the Hentai Figures, the Doujinshi, the Special DVD boxsets that cost around $500. … It’s the ero obsessed, the people that we may not be able to see eye to eye with perhaps? Who we may think are desperate and creepy, the Japanese males that we don’t understand or can’t relate to.… They want more Ero, Moe or whatever, and they’ll get just that…

Okay so if we… the people who kind of enjoy the big amazing stories like Full Metal Alchemist, Code Geass, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagan, GITS and all those classics, aren’t the core market anymore, then we all know that’s bad. It means that we, the so called people with “good taste” who aren’t “pervs looking to whack off to the next girl with huge eyes and knockers that look like beach balls” aren’t in control of what gets made… we’re losing out to what could constituent as the very enemies of everything we stand for

And that’s what the problem is, the obsessive, creepy Otaku, is beating the refined, mature and classy Anime fan by simply using money to out buy them.

setsuken  from Anime Evo

That’s it. “the  mature and classy Anime fan”, against the “obsessive, creepy otaku”. The passionate western reviewers, against the ero-obsessed Japanese males.  Us, against them. 

If you find someone using this argument in the future, you might  want to inform them that all these “big amazing stories” that they listed, happen to be big hits in Japan.  You might also try to show them a sales list, to demonstrate that actually the “creepy Japanese otaku” tends to be buying the most acclaimed series, and that the bottom of these lists, the place for failures, is littered with the terribad shows that offered nothing but ecchi scenes, or boring moe slice-of-life.

You can try that, but don’t expect much from it. They have a knack for finding the handful of titles on such a list, that they would have placed elsewhere. As I said, elitists don’t really care about the overall picture, they care about everyone agreeing with the specifics of their personal taste.

But there is a second possible path for elitists: Instead of using a “nerdier than thou” argument, to claim that they should be trusted because they are even more elite than the core audience, they can also try to make a 180 degree turn, and preach that anime needs to be more mainstream. If the fandom is to be blamed for things that the elitist doesn’t like, then the elitist is even willing to say that anime needs to grow up to be a more mainstream, more healthy medium. Anime needs to be relatable to normal people. Of course, this branch of elitists doesn’t actually want anime to be mainstream. They hate the mainstream. They hate Transformers, Twilight, American Idol, Naruto, Modern Warfare, etc. That’s what they call “pandering to the Lowest Common Denominator”. These “normal people” are whom they call “the unrefined masses”. They don’t want anime to be made for such people. When they express their dislike of anime “pandering to the otaku”, they expect to see not “mainstream pandering”, but something like the shows on old nointaminA instead of it.

Well, here is the thing: Those shows were not mainstream! It’s the most elitist niche in the entire anime fandom!

If anything, Bleach and Naruto are the closest to “maistream anime”. All those normal-looking, non-sexualized nominally “Josei” shows that are airing in the late night block, not in primetime when anyone “normal” would watch them. And they aren’t being watched, either. Their disk sales, and ratings, are both even lower than those of average anime shows. For all intents and purposes, these shows are aimed at the most devoted few of the anime fans. At elitists. If  a show like AnoHana sold 31.000 disks, and Usagi Drop sold 4.000, that’s because there are only 4000 fans who care so much about originality, that they would rather watch a show about the mundane life of a grown man and a little girl, told with quirky visuals, than a more standard melodrama.  For all practical purposes, AnoHana was the more mainstream one of the two, while Usagi Drop was watched by only a few.

But that won’t stop elitists from claiming that AnoHana was betraying the original purpose of noitaminA by “otaku pandering”. Because it betrayed them.  And if any show dares to betray the elitist’s personal wishes, that must be because it’s pandering somewhere. Either towards the dirty unwashed masses, or towards the dirty unwashed otaku.

The elitists, on the other hand, are washing their hands.

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6 responses to “The Anime Elitist’s Paradox

  1. Wow, excellent point about elitism. It’s one of my pet peeves too so I always enjoy reading posts about it. I wrote a post about elitism a while back but I didn’t get as detailed as you did here =)

    • I remember now, after looking up! It was you! That was your top post around the days when I started this blog, so after first randomly looking around in the the blogosphere, it was one of my defining inspirations for the general type of post that I planned to write.

  2. You’re dead-on with this, too. It’s often forgotten that what becomes a big hit in Western fandom isn’t necessarily what had the biggest impact or pecuniary success in Japan. It’s also not as though late-night anime aimed at a niche means that grandiose stories aligned with more mainstream taste are NOT being made.

    When somebody complains about the state of anime today, I usually make a few recommendations and remind them how lucky we are that we get so much choice – that we have both worlds to choose between.

    Also, I really enjoy your blog so I’m going to include it in my (currently teeny-tiny) blogroll. Hope that’s fine with you!

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