The History of Anime: Part 5 – Dawn of the Digital Era

Last time, anime rose from a nationwide economic crisis to become a global juggernaut. The 1990’s saw enormous growth for the industry, but an even bigger change was just around the corner. Computers and the internet completely changed anime – how it’s made, how we watch it, and how we talk about it with others. The new millennium kicked off the digital age of animation, and gave us more great shows and movies than ever before. Plus, my all-time favorite anime is from the 2000’s – see if you know which one that is!

Digital Animation Takes Over

From the 1930’s up to the mid-90’s, all animation was cel animation. Everything was drawn by hand, an expensive and arduous process. By the 2000’s, though, computers were everywhere. Animators could create entire shows with just a keyboard and mouse, with a fraction of the time and resources necessary for traditional cel animation. Most early 2000’s anime took a mixed media approach, scanning hand-drawn images and coloring them digitally. But by 2005, most studios were doing everything on a screen.

Makoto Shinkai

The shift to CG created a ripple effect throughout the entire industry. Animators who spent their whole careers on cel animation had to learn an entirely new system in just a few years. However, it also meant making new anime was easier, cheaper, and had more creative options than ever. One of the visionaries of this era was Makoto Shinkai: he made his debut film, 2000’s Voices of a Distant Star, entirely on a Macintosh computer. Even animation purist Hayao Miyazaki went on board, incorporating CG with hand-crafted drawings in Spirited Away and winning anime’s first/only Oscar for it. Like cel animation before it, CG gave creators tools that would never have been possible before. But it was far from the only way technology changed the game in this decade.

Spirited Away, 2002

The World Goes Online

Computers transformed how anime was produced, but they also changed how it was consumed and discussed. Online forums brought otakus from around the world together to discuss their favorite and not-so-favorite shows. And if a series you liked wasn’t localized or was just too expensive to own, you could always download fan-subbed episodes for free online!

Naruto, 2006

Of course, executives worried about piracy cutting into their profits, but some studios were quick to capitalize on the new medium. J.C. Staff gave us the first ONA (Original Net Animation) with the sketch comedy Azumanga Daioh in 2002. Flash forward to 2008, when Studio GONZO struck a deal with former pirate site Crunchyroll to air the first simulcast. For the first time ever, worldwide viewers could watch officially subbed episodes of anime the same day they aired in Japan. A year later, the site added Naruto Shippuden to its simulcasting library, and the legal streaming floodgates opened. Today, Crunchyroll is arguably the most popular way to watch anime outside of Japan.

Another Boom…

The shift in technology and all the hype from the 90’s resulted in another explosion of titles from the industry. Many of the biggest anime came from the popular magazine Shonen Jump. The “Big Three” of Shonen, One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach, dominated sales and middle school cafeteria conversations with their flashy fights and epic serialized adventures. But we also got some darker stuff, like the 2006 suspense thriller Death Note. Then there’s 2003’s Fullmetal Alchemist, a steampunk saga that mixed the familiar Shonen themes of brotherhood with a deep story about politics, religion, and war. The anime diverged significantly from Hiromu Arakawa’s original manga halfway through, but Studio Bones gave us a more faithful adaptation, Brotherhood, just as her story was wrapping up.

Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, 2009

Happening right alongside the Shonen boom, though, was a much cuddlier Moe boom! Moe is often misunderstood by fans, but it basically refers to a Platonic ideal of cuteness. There have been moe characters in anime since forever, but the term didn’t take off until the 2000’s. Studios started making slice-of-life shows catering specifically to fans of moe characters, with low stakes and a relaxing pace. Kyoto Animation spearheaded the movement, with back-to-back hits in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzimiya, Lucky Star, and K-On! These shows emphasized humor and character development in their moe girls, and the studio itself broke new ground by hiring mostly female animators and directors.

K-On!, 2009

Previously, manga was the go-to source for an anime adaptation, but that changed in the 2000’s. Studios wanted new sources for inspiration, so they made anime based on light novels (Spice and Wolf), visual novels (Fate/Stay Night) and even Western stories (Howl’s Moving Castle, based on a British novel). Original anime was becoming increasingly popular too, with the cream of the crop being Studio Gainax’s Gurren Lagann. The animation is near-perfect, the characters are completely over the top and charming, and the show just goes all-out with the anime tropes in a refreshing and hilarious way. There’s a lot of fanservice, which is not really my jam, but… just watch it, it’s a friggin’ masterpiece.

Gurren Lagann, 2007

… and Another Bust

Just like in the 80’s, the good times didn’t last forever. Another economic crisis hit in 2008, this time worldwide. Production slowed dramatically, and unprofitable shows were abruptly canceled. Studios like Gainax that had been around for decades had to close or became a shadow or their former selves. Those that survived became increasingly cautious: shows that may have received 50-100 episodes in the 90’s would now only receive 12 or 13. This became a problem for animators, who could easily find themselves out of work if a series wasn’t renewed for a second season. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom: 2007 saw the formation of the first Japanese animator’s labor union. Osamu Tezuka would be proud.

Avatar The Last Airbender, 2005

The anime industry has a lot of ups and downs in the 2000’s, but it was still a great time overall. Anime was so big that even American animation studios started making cartoons in an anime style, like the DC spin-off Teen Titans and the groundbreaking Avatar: The Last Airbender. Next is the last installment of this long series. We’ll look at anime from 2010 to the present day, and maybe think about where the medium might go in the future. Thanks for sticking with me this far, and I hope you’ll stay until the end!

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