My friends and I always get excited for all the new anime that come out each season. But what inevitably happens is we all board the “One-Episode Train,” where we watch one or two episodes of a show and never finish it.
Why do we never finish the shows we started at the beginning of the season? Because the seasonal anime structure is awful; both for the audience who watches it and the for the people that create it.
For the consumer, there are just way too many shows to keep up with week to week. In Spring 2017 alone their were 69 TV shows, 48 web anime, and 31 OVAs/specials. In total in 2017, there were 224 TV shows, 203 web Anime, 126 OVAs/specials that were released. This doesn’t include ongoing shows that don’t take a break, like One Piece or Boruto. The sheer amount of choice in what to watch creates choice overload. The choice overload theory states that when given a large selection to choose from, our brains become overwhelmed and short out. The consumer is then more likely to not make choice at all due to the sheer amount of options. If you apply this to the anime fan, instead of watching any of the new shows of the season, a person may stick to a franchise he or she is familiar with such as Dragon Ball or My Hero Academia. Trying to keep up with every show during the season can cause burnout, causing friends and fans to leave the anime fandom as soon as they entered.
Quality content curation by services such as Netflix and Crunchyroll is the key to keep new and old anime fans engaged.
Curation is “the organization of products by subject matter or theme.” Companies like Spotify, Amazon, and Netflix tout their curation tools to give consumers what they want, whether it be anime, music, movies, or what have you. Curation is done by a combination of “experts” or “influencers“, AI and algorithmically generated recommendations, and personal curation. Spotify uses experts for its selected playlist which are curated by people hired by Spotify. Giving a more personal touch to these playlists can be hit or miss, depending on the user’s tastes. YouTube and Netflix use Artificial Intelligence to generate their recommendations. The use of AI saves on time and manpower, but the AI at times can become single minded in the type of recommendations it gives to users. Personal curation is a individual user going through a service and picking their interest, but personal curation can be an arduous process if you’re not looking to blindly consume things in the hope that maybe you’ll like it.
Let’s look at the most well known anime streaming service (Crunchyroll) and see how curation is handled on their website.
Crunchyroll’s curation is done primarily through personal curation, with some filters to help its users. On Crunchyroll’s main page, it lists the current shows airing in a given season. This is helpful if you want to know what is on right at this moment. The problem is that shows are not listed in any particular order, either by air date, genre, or title. The only place where shows are listed in a specific order are in sidebar section on the right hand side that states when a show’s new episode will be on Crunchyroll. Since this is not front and center on Crunchyroll’s homepage, most people will pass by that list entirely. In contrast, the “Shows” page has much better curation filters. The “Shows” page lists the titles and cover art that goes along with each show. Any user can look at shows by popularity, simulcast date, genre, or season. Sadly though, these filters can’t be stacked; for example, you can’t do a search for “Slice of life” shows that aired in “Spring 2017.” Crunchyroll does give users some options though filters, but since they are stackable and not on the homepage, it’s very difficult for users to find it.
Generally speaking, your Netflix’s and Amazon’s do a much poorer job in curation. Unless you to go to a particular page for “Movies” or “TV Shows,” they mix them all together. Their content is listed in a horizontal direction, which takes much longer to read through. Netflix also does a poor job at distinguishing what the difference between what “Recently Added” and “What’s new?” sections actually mean, which causes some unneeded confusion. While AI can help make choosing easier, design choice and so-so filters will likely contribute to choice overload.
On the production side, the sheer amount shows creates a never ending grind for the actual animation staff. It’s to the point where different animation studios frequently help each other out to lighten the workload and stay on schedule. A majority of these studios are non-union employers, leading to low pay and grueling work hours. Henry Thurlow who has worked on Akatsuki no Yona, Tokyo Ghoul, and Naruto-The Last elaborated on the working conditions in a 2015 Kotaku article, “Being an Animator in Japan is Brutal” by Brian Ashcraft:
“I worked at a slave-labor-inbetween-studio called “Nakamura Pro” for 8 months before moving onto Pierrot which is where I am now. At Nakamura Pro we were paid $1 per drawing, meaning you earned between $5 and $25 a day. At Pierrot, it’s way better… but still pretty bad. 1 drawing = $2-$4 …. so on any given day I can earn about $40. (HORRIBLE by anyone’s standards…. but, if you want to work on cool anime, there’s not much choice.) …Each month at Pierrot I earn about $1000. …… each month at my previous “slave-labor” studio, I earned about $300 a month.“
Henry Thurlow was making the equivalent of less than minimum wage in the United States, which as we all know is quite low ($7.25 per hour). The low income and long works hours have kept the majority of the younger demographic of Japan away from the animation industry. If no new blood enters the anime industry then anime will slowly but surely fade away, with less and less shows coming out each season. Unionization of the anime industry is desperately needed. If unionization is achieved, with better pay, working conditions, and benefits, hopefully a higher quality product will emerge. Unionization could reduce or all together get rid of production crunch time, allowing anime studios to add animation flourishes and effects where they otherwise couldn’t before. The best of the best in writing, sound, and animation would be more willing to work on anime projects, potentially giving us the next Yoko Kanno’s, Hayao Miyazaki’s, or Gen Urobuchi’s of the world.
The typical anime season can look like an embarrassment of riches with so many new shows to choose from, but this glut of shows creates some serious short term memory for a lot of fans. When was the last time you went back to enjoy a show from a season ago? A year ago? 5 years ago? Unless a show is coming out with a new season or getting a reboot, I’d bet not all that often.
Knowing the back-breaking work that goes into producing these shows, I would rather have shows that stuck with me, affected me, or that changed my perceptions of what the medium of animation can do. I’d take a delicious baked potato anime over a potato chip anime any day. I and others believe that starting with animator unionization in Japan would give creators the resources and support that they need so they can work to make better shows for all of us to enjoy.