Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits: Culture and Creation in Manga and Anime is an annual academic and industry-related workshop held at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to explore the creative and cultural implications of anime and manga.
During the weekend of September 25 to 27, I was invited to speak at this year's event, where I presented on elements the conflict of transmedia storytelling and franchise in relation to Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion (1996 - 2009+). If you've never encountered this epic television series (or any of its movies, video games, toys, etc.), there's a solid set of Wikipedia articles explaining the original Japanese animated television program as well as the expansive franchise.
The last panel on Sunday -- usually a comprehensive panel consisting of the conference's guests -- attempted to answer any and all questions posed by the audience. The discussion evolved into a debate surrounding the innovations, debacles, and general future of the Japanese animation and manga industry, both in Japan and the United States. However, at least in my opinion, the discussion by the panelists was fairly unenlightened.
While there are many points that I could tackle in a tl;dr article, I'm going to introduce one series that has attempted a few unconventional endeavors to innovate an industry that has been fairly static over the past forty years.
This series is called Time of Eve.
Time of Eve (Ibu no Jikan,* whose story was created by Yasuhiro Yoshiura alongside a team at Studio Rikka - the English site is available here), in an initial title card per episode, introduces its story thus:
In the future, probably Japan.
Robots have long been put into practical use,
and practical use of androids has just begun.
The main character, Rikuo, who lives with his family and a household android (Sammy), one day notices a strange bit of code in his robot's file log. He and his schoolmate, Masaki, trail the daily routine of Sammy to an underground café called Time of Eve, where the only rule is that all customers must not discriminate between humans and robots. The rule proves difficult for the two male schoolboys, who must reconcile their personal biases against androids, biases formed in a world where people rely on the discrimination between man and machine for self-identity, personal worth, and national politics.
While the story isn't entirely original -- it hearkens back to many robot-related science fiction stories, borrowing from Isaac Asimov and bordering on the many themes present in The Animatrix's "The Second Renaissance" shorts -- the animation quality is superb, blending computer graphics and traditional animation styles into a harmonized world where even the viewer finds it difficult to distinguish wires from blood vessels. The quick-cutting dialogue, the subtle gradients of light, and the subtle cultural clues produce a streamlined story that pulls at heartstrings while strategically approaching serious issues of human ethics.
But the truly innovative elements of Yoshiura's Time of Eve lie in its production and publication tactics. As a six-episode animated series, Time of Eve represents the next step past an entrenched historical model: the OVA. OVA, or original video animation, designates all products produced in the "direct-to-X" model. For anime, the OVA model began in the 1980s, where directors with larger budgets could bypass the television distribution model (sometimes epitomized, negatively, by editors and censors) and create (usually) more adult-centric shows that were available in VHS, LaserDisc, and DVD formats for viewing in the home environment. While issues of editors and censors don't necessarily exist for a show like Time of Eve, Yoshiura's series illustrates a successful ONA: original Net animation.
The six-episode series consists of 15-minute shorts, interspersed over 2-month periods, having begun in August 2008. The series premiered on Yahoo! Japan for free via a streaming format. Given certain production issues, the release schedule was delayed, so that while the third episode premiered on 1 December 2008, the fourth episode appeared on 1 May 2009. Alongside these direct-to-the-Web streaming publications, DVDs were sold on Amazon.jp, for approximately $15 per 1 episode.
In an interview , Yoshiura states that his team has made Time of Eve "with a style that's different from existing anime" (Interview #1). The production schedule relies on teams of production staff, and even then some of the work is outsourced to make the 2-month deadline. He calls his project an "indie-style production," which relates both to the production side and its eventual circulation online: independent, particularly because most production studios have done nothing risky like this in the past. And even then, a schedule of 1 episode per 2 months is still taxing, given that most animation that appears on television relies on a team that knocks out 1 episode per week!
It's also interesting to note that Yoshiura has been keeping up with his international fan base. In that gap leading up to episode 4 in May, he was able to glean opinion from his American fans on the Crunchyroll.com forums. In the second interview linked above, he humbly says, "Your comments inspire me to create even better work." Only in the past decade have producers and creators of anime truly recognized their foreign audiences, but to be able to pin down the thoughts of individual viewers is certainly a new benefit to the creative industry.
Currently, Time of Eve is available for free, streaming on Crunchyroll.com, which hosts a wide array of Japanese animation made available to the English-speaking public, usually with the help of subtitles. Crunchyroll has been known in the past to be the principal online streaming service for anime, as the website has secured collaborations with Japanese distributors to release certain shows only an hour after they premiere on television in Japan (for a membership fee; these same shows appear on the website for free after one week).
However, as with all foreign media, we must recognize that Japanese animation is made primarily by Japanese producers for a primarily Japanese audience in a primarily Japanese context (to reference Lawrence Eng, a scholar of otaku studies). Although Time of Eve presents a well-crafted story with nice visuals, a mind removed from Japanese culture might not pick up on subtle cues that situate the story in a certain context. The fact that each episode opens with "In the future, probably Japan." suggests that certain elements of this series' fabricated culture reflect those of reality. For example, three instances immediately stand out in the first episode when the television is turned on: a news anchor talking about robot-harvested food that resembles a typical Japanese broadcast, a commercial for the robot-human relations Ethics Committee that mirrors the design of many Japanese television commercials, and a talk show that mentions dori-kei (an android-dependent human) -- a clear parody of the multitude of generational monikers doled out by the Japanese media (a recent example: herbivore men). While these three short cultural references last only 35 seconds, a non-Japanese viewer might not engage emotionally with the allusions, and therefore not entirely sympathize with the world of the series which parallels that of today's Japan so well.
While it's intriguing to debate the effects of transnational media flows, Time of Eve is a new series that should not be missed (and it's hard not to when it's available for free online; the link's above, if you missed it). Perhaps we'll begin to see more Original Net Animation and other innovations for the anime industry in the near future.
* Apologies for only providing the romanization of the Japanese. I'm still trying to figure out encoding problems for Japanese characters.