The 2010’s were, in some ways, a culmination of the past 100 years of anime history. Online streaming came into its own, causing an influx of new content and bridging the gap between Japan and the rest of the world. New genres came into the spotlight, and old classics were improved upon. Anime became a pop-cultural force to be reckoned with, and stuffy academics finally started seeing it as a legitimate art form. Now, since these works are fairly new, we don’t know for sure if they will stand the test of time. But I’m going to try my best to list the decade’s highlights, and speculate which anime might be the “new classics” in 10 years or so. It’s been a long journey, but we’re in the homestretch now!
The Age of Streaming
The success of Crunchyroll, the first major legal anime streaming service, created a newbie boom throughout the 2010’s. People who may have never seen Dragon Ball or Gundam, or who got into anime as kids but fell off the hype train as they got older, suddenly became part of the core demographic. Other companies were quick to take notice, especially after Netflix added 2013’s hit Attack on Titan to their streaming library. This gruesome take on Shonen battle anime was so popular it was compared to Game of Thrones in its heyday, showing millions of regular Joes that anime is not just cartoons for kids.
Today, streaming services don’t just let you watch anime: they’re helping produce hit anime series of their own. Netflix helped fund and localize anime by Kyoto Animation and Trigger, while Crunchyroll went for the up-and-coming webtoon market with their adaptation of the Korean manhua, Tower of God. However, the transition hasn’t been completely smooth. One of the biggest issues right now is that the market is over-saturated with streaming services, many of which have exclusive titles. Since social media likes to push what’s new and trending above all else, a lot of older, classic anime is being slowly forgotten. And Netflix has faced criticism ranging from censorship to their horrible live action adaptations. However, it’s impossible to deny how much the Internet has contributed to anime’s rise in popularity – not just in making it more accessible and easy to watch, but in giving fans a way to communicate, in real time, across national and language barriers.
A New, Familiar Form of Fantasy
Gaming became mainstream in the 2010’s, as online multiplayer and video sharing sites like YouTube and Twitch let players connect from around the world. It was only natural that anime about games would follow, but few realized how big isekai (“another world”) anime would become when Sword Art Online dropped in 2012.
Sword Art was not the first show about a young boy trapped in an MMORPG-style game (the .hack series beat it by a good 10 years) but it definitely popularized the trend. The shows blend of sci-fi fantasy and (of course) fanservice made it one of the most popular and controversial anime of the decade. Countless other isekai followed suit, some offering more subversive takes on the genre. Re:Zero took isekai into dark places by making its protagonist intentionally underpowered, while Konosuba went for a more comedic route by making its protagonist intentionally a jerk. Still, the appeal of isekai is it’s familiar kind of fantasy: it transports your everyday otaku into the kind of worlds they might have grown up with playing Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy as a kid. And with how much success the genre has had, it’s clearly not going away anytime soon.
Deconstruction and Reconstruction
Anime is great and all, but all the tropes and genre conventions can get repetitive after a while. But what about those shows that set up familiar tropes, and and then twist them to make something completely new? Enter the deconstruction, a kind of meta-genre that seeks to make us question the assumptions we make about our media, often putting a dark spin on familiar story elements.
Deconstructing tropes is nothing new (even Shakespeare was subverting popular genre conventions of his time), but it wasn’t until the 2010’s that the term became widely used for anime specifically. Puella Magi Madoka Magica was initially marketed as a light and fluffy magical girl anime in 2011, but it’s actually a horror show about finding hope in a world full of suffering. Made in Abyss took a similar route, setting up its world to be a Ghibli-risqué fantasyland while slowly unraveling the twisted secrets beneath. And on a lighter note, Kaguya-sama: Love Is War deconstructs anime rom-com tropes by taking its tsundere protagonists to hilarious extremes.
Of course, for every deconstruction, there is an equal and opposite reconstruction. Reconstructions acknowledge the shortcomings of past works in the their genre, and try to make them more realistic or relatable. My Hero Academia is a love letter to both Shonen Jump anime and superhero comics, but it’s heroes often grapple with personal struggles just as much as they fight the bad guys. Studio Trigger, formed by former Gainax employees, reconstructed fanservice with Kill la Kill. It’s central theme is that there’s nothing wrong with being naked, and the show is weirdly empowering for how shamelessly lewd it is. All of these shows offer a fresh take on well-established genres, without losing what makes them good in the first place.
Anime for Everyone
The best part about anime today is that with so many shows out there, there truly is something for everyone. Sci-fi and fantasy are popular as always, but now we also have horror (The Promised Neverland), drama/romance (Your Lie in April), sports anime (Haikyuu) cooking anime (Food Wars) retro series given a glow up (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure) and hell, even anime about making anime (Shirobako). There is so much more variety than before, allowing people who may have never had interest in anime to easily find a new favorite.
In addition, the proliferation of the internet has made it easier than ever for new and unique voices to break through in the industry. ONE taught himself how to draw with no previous experience, creating a self-published web manga that would become the superhero parody mega-hit One Punch Man. Makoto Shinkai, after spending years making digital animation on his personal computer, created a breathtaking box-office smash with Your Name. Most isekai anime began as self-published web novels by amateur authors. These days, almost anyone can have their story made into an anime – with enough hard work, patience, and a lot of luck.
Today, anime is not just a niche Japanese pop-cultural phenomenon for boys. Anime is made and enjoyed all over the world, and many diverse communities can find a voice in it. Yuri on Ice broke new ground in sports anime with its heartfelt romance between the two male leads, and was adored both in and outside the LGBTQ community. Cowboy Bebop’s Shinichiro Watanabe made Carole and Tuesday, a love letter to pop music which featured a black female lead and a message of global unity. And the comedy/idol show Zombieland Saga featured a heartfelt tribute to its transgender zombie girl, Lily. These shows would not be possible even ten years ago, and they make the anime community a more welcoming place for marginalized groups of people.
Where Do We Go From Here?
After all the monumental success of the past ten years, the anime industry is again facing hard times due to COVID-19 and the fire which devastated Kyoto Animation. Many shows have been delayed or canceled, as studios had to shift to working from home. But if this long history lesson has taught me anything, it’s that anime can always bounce back from a crisis. There is always a demand for art to help us through difficult times, and it’s still possible to make amazing anime while working from home.
If anything, anime is more popular than its ever been. Anime isn’t just TV and movies anymore: it’s games, manga and light novels, Internet memes, virtual YouTubers, official and fan-created artwork, and lots and lots of merchandise. It’s adored by celebrities, name-dropped in hip-hop lyrics, and featured in the Louvre – but most of all, it’s enjoyed by all of us.
Writing this post has really helped me appreciate how far anime has come over the years, while also marveling at the classics. I hope you have enjoyed reading this long series about one of my favorite things in the world. Can I ask y’all something though? If anything in this post makes you happy or introduces you to something you haven’t seen before, please share that anime with someone who you think might be into it. In a time as isolating as this one, I’d just like to have a few more people together and being happy over something they love.