If Algorithms are the Enemy, is Anime the Antidote?
How an auteur-driven artform illustrates a way out of digital dystopia
This month, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron won a Golden Globe for best animated motion picture. It was a big moment for the octogenarian director and Studio Ghibli, but at first glance, it might not seem like that big of a deal from a cultural standpoint. After all, how can Miyazaki top taking home that Oscar for Spirited Away, way back at the 2003 Academy Awards? Yet something feels different, this time around.
For one thing, it’s Ghibli’s first big win “post-Mouse.” Disney, which started distributing Ghibli’s films globally in 1996, never seemed to really mesh with the idiosyncratic Japanese studio. It dithered over Spirited Away for years after the film’s Japanese release, belatedly releasing it to just a handful of theaters, and only backed it at the Oscars to give a middle finger to rival Dreamworks SKG. Spirited Away’s win was so unexpected that none of its principals even bothered attending the awards ceremony. Disney relinquished its distribution rights to Ghibli’s films in 2017.
The Boy and the Heron soared on its own wings, breaking box-office records and even becoming the most-watched film in America for a brief time in December of 2023. Spirited Away felt like an outlier. Heron feels like a declaration. Pixar and Disney have long dominated the animated side of the Globes, winning twelve of the seventeen awards given since the category’s inception in 2006. But today they and the rest of the Hollywood establishment are besieged on all sides by competition for mindshare, from movie-streaming platforms to YouTube. Heron all but crows: add anime to the list.
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History repeats? Anime was supposed to be the Next Big Thing once before, after The Matrix and Tarantino and Spirited Away mainstreamed it in the early Aughts. Then it went back into the shadows, for much of the 2010s. But the media landscape has changed profoundly in the two decades between Miyazaki’s triumphs.
We’ve migrated en masse from passively consuming broadcast television and theatrical releases to binge-watching bespoke streaming series and YouTube on our own timetables and tablets. And the curation of what we get to see has passed from the hands of human gatekeepers to the black box of algorithmic suggestion. These parallel trends are deeply entwined with anime’s ongoing success outside of Japan.
I’ve written previously about why anime is catnip to both consumers and streaming platforms alike. Thematically, it meshes well with broader trends in the already cartoon-and-comic obsessed American entertainment world. But even more importantly, it’s produced in absolutely massive quantities, to the tune of some 100,000 minutes a year. Easy to watch and even easier to binge watch, anime was miso soup for the soul in the lockdown era.
Theatrical releases represent a small fraction of those 100,000 minutes; the vast majority of anime is consumed as series online. This is where the algorithms come in. Just as social media platforms use algorithms to mediate what we see in our feeds, streaming platforms use them to curate what we see in our recommendations.
If what is placed in front of consumers depends on the whims of algorithms, it’s only natural that creators will consciously or unconsciously pander to them. The result isn’t a race to the bottom but a race to the middle, as everything takes on “the acceptable aesthetic and cultural average,” as Kyle Chayka of the excellent new Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture puts it. He writes of a great sameness that seems to have overtaken everything in modern pop culture, not only online but in real life. The way, to pick one example, hipster coffee shops around the globe have come to resemble one another by striving for the same Instagram vibe. In other words, by outsourcing the curation of culture, we’re losing the tastemaking that made much of human culture in the first place.
But Japanese shows (and coffee shops, thank god) don’t feel much like their American counterparts. The reason is simple: Japanese creators aren’t pandering to Insta algorithms. And the reason for that is even simpler: most Japanese creatives are really only concerned with the Japanese market. In the Aughts, Japanese pundits used the term “Galapagos syndrome” to disparage manufacturers who abdicated foreign markets in favor of turning an easy local yen. Critics fumed that these meek firms were depriving the economy of the spoils of the globalized markets. Traditionally, the iPhone represented the jewel in the crown of this argument, as its appearance singlehandedly demolished a once-enviable marketplace of Japanese phones. The rise of K-pop as opposed to J-pop might represent another. (It is also an example of algorithms unexpectedly influencing pop culture – stay tuned for a dive on that in a newsletter to come.)
But as things get more and more same-y in Filterworld, as Chayka calls our algorithm-circumscribed lives, Japan’s idea to ignore international trends and focus inward starts to feel like a canny choice. Where foreign consumers are concerned, it gives pop culture from Japan a certain aura, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s famed turn of phrase. Insularity mints the only currency that really matters when it comes to matters of taste: authenticity.
Note this doesn’t mean that Japanese products are actually any more original or creative or authentic than those produced abroad. It just means that they’re built for a different set of filters. From a big-picture perspective, there’s a great sameness to a lot of anime/manga series. It’s particularly true of the Shonen Jump-based megahits, with their inevitable archetypes: the Japanese schoolyard settings, the secret worlds where even losers can find their hidden potential, the wild mood-swings from slapstick to super-violent. This is because they are derived from an editorial system so experienced at creating hits I’ve called it a human algorithm.
Which sounds like more of the same, but it’s a different algorithm, and that gives Japanese content an incredible one-two punch of predictability and a novelty at the same time. And when you think about it, this explains the huge popularity ofThe Boy and The Heron, too. It is packed with homages to previous films, a breadcrumb trail of little treats for Ghibli fans who can sigh with appreciation at every little animistic goblin Miyazaki deploys. (That this is intentional doesn’t change that the end result is a pastiche.) Even foreign critics have picked up on it.The Washington Post called the film “middling for Miyazaki,” a statement with which I personally agree. And I say that even having enjoyed it.
What I’m getting at with this is simple: Anime is full of repetitive archetypes, but not the same repetitive archetypes of Western entertainment. It is made by committee, but not the same committees as Hollywood fare. And even though its edges have been smoothed by editors in similar ways, those edges don’t feel smoothed by the sameitude success demands online. These things make anime deeply compatible with our algorithmically-mediated Filterworld, without being products of it.
This is why anime isn’t in a boom but here to stay, and why it offers a kind of roadmap out of the cultural labyrinth humanity finds itself in online. Anime is a product, created by corporate machines to make money, just like our entertainment content is. But the Japanese know where to leave the final decisions: in the hands of those human editors and auteurs like Miyazaki. If we follow their lead, maybe we can use the algorithms, instead of the other way around.
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