The Recession is Over, and You Should Thank the Fangirls
by: David Taranto
Part 2: The Magical Girls
From the outset of Toonami alone, it was easy to see the demographics at play. Dragonball Z was for the boys. Sailor Moon was for the girls. Gundam Wing, with its giant robots, was for the boys. Cardcaptor Sakura, with its outfits and cute mascot, was for the girls.
Most of you probably scoffed at that Gundam Wing bit, didn’t you? We’re not blind to fandom. The publishers weren’t either. It doesn’t take a swat from a yaoi paddle to see the sheer energy that female anime fans pour into the medium. The lion’s share of stellar cosplay, the majority of decibels down a con hallway, and the growing number of fanworks in Artist’s Alleys and doujinshi in Dealer’s Rooms makes it clear: women are a powerful force to be reckoned with.
I don’t mean to conflate all female anime fans with Boys’ Love fangirls. I know that’s not the case. But that particular subset, I believe, is largely to thank for where we are today. It’s also easy to say we should thank the male fans who bought Dragonball Z fifteen times over and buy the premium boob-shaped box sets of harem series, but I don’t believe they were enough on their own to stem the tide of the industry’s downturn, and they certainly weren’t the only viable sustaining customers in the companies’ minds. And this holds true both for North America AND Japan.
The Law of Universal “Gravitation”
It’s hard to pin down an exact point to start chronicling the BL trend in North American fandom, but this seems as good as any.
I picked up my first Tokyopop manga in 2002—Gundam Wing: Battlefield of Pacifists. With it came a sampler that contained bits from the first volumes of several other series: Marmalade Boy, Paradise Kiss, Planet Ladder, Dragon Knights, Gravitation, and Cowboy Bebop, among others.
I wouldn’t discover for a couple more years just how much of an impact Gravitation was having. Fanboys laughed at it with derision. Fangirls seemed to really enjoy it. Like, really enjoy it.
Females at conventions were largely associated, by me, with BL. It was hard for them not to be. Whether they were a vocal minority or majority, the BL fangirl presence was a constant force.
It was a force that grew, and grew rapidly, too. 2001 saw the release of Weiss Kreuz, and in 2003, Central Park media released Descendants of Darkness. In 2005, Media Blasters released Sukisyo! on DVD, and Tokyopop launched their “Blu” line dedicated to the genre. In 2006, Media Blasters released the Loveless anime as well, and Tokyopop would start publishing that manga the same year. After Tokyopop stopped publishing manga, Viz picked up the license. In October 2011, Viz launched their BL imprint, SuBLime, providing even more content to the market. Despite the failure of Tokyopop (whose decline is fairly well-documented, or at least widely-speculated), the other imprints seem to be doing just fine today.
This by itself doesn’t mean the BL fans were sustaining the industry, not by a long shot. But they were there. We always knew they were there. Every dealer’s room you walked into, the swag grew more diverse. The balance swung, and if you didn’t notice it, you really weren’t paying attention.
It was insidiously awesome.
All of this was bubbling under the surface, along with the other company failures and license rescues, until Summer 2013, when one show made a big splash…
Make Us Free!
I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures from events in Japan for the show Free!, but if you haven’t, you’re missing out on scenes you’d expect from idol concerts or San Diego Comic Con crowds. Japan hit on something here. It ain’t just body pillows and drama CDs anymore, no sir. Women are now being directly pandered to, and according to the consensus, the results can be good shows on top of it!
Free! has to be one of the hottest anime fandoms on Tumblr right now. The volume of results is staggering. Fanart is made, fanfics are written, and cosplays are done that get as much attention as the male otaku give females in their favorite outfits. Both sides of the Pacific are decidedly realizing that—just as male fandom has always been—female fandom is worthy of deeming profitable, with a full complement of merchandise to boot. The sales charts on Anime News Network show that the Free! releases on disc finished near the top every week they came out. Now Season 2 has been greenlit for this summer. Kyoto Animation, villainized by male otaku for pandering, is laughing its way to the bank, just as every harem-anime-producing company ever has done from male otaku indulgence.
Free!’s popularity in both North America and Japan could very well serve as a comfort to companies wondering where to turn next.
Tracing a Path
It was 2010 when Nozomi Entertainment announced the license rescue of Utena. This was the latest, but by no means the last, in a long line of rescues and brand new licenses for them. Some of their biggest, most surprising, and most groundbreaking are, in no particular order:
-Martian Successor Nadesico
-Rose of Versailles (never before released in North America)
-Gasaraki (a late 90s mech anime)
-El Hazard: The Wanderers (another 90s Old Guard franchise)
-Princess Nine (Hey, remember that one? Technically, it’s being released by Lucky Penny Entertainment, but it falls under the same umbrella.)
With each new announcement they made, new speculation and requests came in. Each guessing game came with the same hopeful yet hopeless stabs in the dark—“Hey, are you guys going to get Cardcaptor Sakura?” “What about Sailor Moon? Is that next?”—followed by detractors rehashing how old either series was, or how long, or how expensive the license, or how difficult the licensee.
Let’s do a little thinking, here.
What would it take to deem either of these licenses worth pursuing? I didn’t major in economics or anything, but I would argue that:
1) You must believe you have a target audience.
2) You must believe that target audience will want to buy your product.
3) You must believe that target audience will be able to afford to buy it.
4) You must believe that target audience, if unable to afford it, will use means to watch it that still make you the money you need.
All of these revolve around the target audience. If you put something on Hulu and nobody watches it, Hulu’s going to wonder what you’re doing with their server space and, at their first opportunity, find something else they believe will make better use of it.
Two for Two, One of Two
Sure enough, on April 30th, 2014, in the biggest anime announcement since the news of Free!‘s second season, NIS America announced that they had the rights to the Cardcaptor Sakura TV series. Now, two weeks later, Sailor Moon and its remake, Sailor Moon Crystal, have been picked up by Viz.
The target demographic of both of these releases is primarily the people who watched them growing up—which, essentially, means females who are now twenty years older than they were when they first saw Sailor Moon. They’re indisputably grown, with new stations in life that afford them, at the very least, the autonomy to click a button and single out 30-minute chunks of their days, and at most, the financial independence to purchase these new releases.
I’m not saying guys aren’t going to want these shows, too. I’m planning on owning both of them myself, and I am decidedly not a female. They are important, they are old, and alongside that, they are good, which for me is the anime trifecta. As I pointed out at the beginning of this installment, blurring the lines of appeal is something that will always happen regardless of intent; aside from that, I believe all truly good properties will accomplish this more than mediocre or bad ones. But these two series in particular are not particularly intended for males in the market.
Which leads me to my final point: this means that at least one of two things must be true:
1) Streaming media is lucrative enough that the perceived demand of the female audience will offset the cost of acquiring what was believed to be the most difficult or expensive licenses in North American anime history.
2) The buying power of females is strong enough that the expected purchases of the female audience will offset the cost of acquiring these licenses.
I firmly believe, in either or both cases, that this is a winning proposition, which shows that the economy that laid waste to this industry has bounced back enough to make new licenses possible. Supply and demand, as I understand it, drives economics, and the demand of the devoted and vocal female target audience was enough to bring about things that very few people believed actually possible.
Ladies, you’ve won yourselves your childhoods back, for all of us. Congratulations, and thank you.
All data and dates are from Wikipedia or in the Anime News Network encyclopedia. If you can’t find something on Wikipedia, you’ll find it on ANN.