It is an interesting question. Are there any reasons for the shortening of anime series? Yes! There are a few reasons for this, including money.
Fist of the North Star © Toei Animation / Shueisha
I know, economics can be boring, so I’ll keep this brief. A recession basically means that the market is shrinking. People aren’t buying things as often and businesses aren’t investing in new products and services. If money isn’t being circulated in the economy, businesses don’t have as much reason to create new products, people lose their jobs, and people cut back on unnecessary spending.
Chart via Zero Hedge
Certain economists have argued that Japan has been in a recession since the 1990s and are just now crawling out of it.
Declining birth rate
Japan is in the middle of a population crisis. As of June, 2015, the birth rate was at a record low of 1.26 children per woman. The Japanese government estimates that the birth rate must be at 2.07 to maintain the current population level as it is.
Kokoro Connect © Silver Link / Enterbrain
Not a lot of these spreading joy
What this means is that Japan is an aging country. The work force is rapidly aging and will be retiring soon. As people age, they tend to have less disposable income or their tastes in entertainment change.
Japan has tried to some odd things to get people to make babies, but it’s not working. Some countries can offset this by encouraging immigration, but Japan doesn’t really like that idea, preferring to have a homogenous society.
How does this affect anime?
Okay, so I got the groundwork out of the way. Let’s talk about how this affects the anime industry.
Shirobako © P.A. Works
Committees are the gatekeepers of anime
The recession and declining birthrate affects anime in two ways.
- Anime production committees and studios are reluctant to invest in a long term series
- Most long term series were aimed at children and teenagers.
Long term or short term?
Studios need money to make anime. Pretty obvious, right? So, when a production committee gets together to produce an anime they ask a couple of questions:
- Who is the target audience?
- How popular is the source material / how popular can this new IP* become?
- How much will the anime cost?
- How will we make a profit?
*IP = Intellectual Property: these are creations of the mind, like art, design, inventions, names and images used in commerce.
Now, keep in mind that anime was generally cheaper to make in the 1980s to the early 1990s since Japan’s economy was booming.
The Castle of Cagliostro © TMS Entertainment
It is cheaper and less risky to invest in a shorter running anime. If you are budgeting for a 100 episode series and already worked out the business deals, then you are stuck making a 100 episode series, unless you cut your losses and cancel the project. If the series doesn’t catch on, or it isn’t making money on merchandise (more on this in a minute), then you could end up in the red.
What about series popularity? Adapting a hit manga gives you an advantage over creating an original series.
Yu Yu Hakusho © Studio Pierrot / Shueisha
Let’s go back to peak at those 100+ episode epics. Yu Yu Hakusho, Ranma 1/2, Sailor Moon, and Dragon Ball Z all were insanely popular manga series before getting adapted. For example, Yu Yu Hakusho was one of Shueisha’s best selling manga before the anime was made. Having a large, built in audience makes it easier to risk a long form series.
Modern examples include Naruto, One Piece, Ace of Diamond, and Fairy Tail. Their manga are popular, so committees are comfortable with investing in the large episode counts.
Ace of Diamond © Madhouse / Production I.G. / Kodansha
Ace of Diamond season 1 is 75 episodes. The ongoing second season is at 20 episodes.
It is worth noting that Weekly Shonen Jump, which is the most popular manga magazine in Japan, has been losing subscribers since the early 2000s.
A shift in demographics
Take a look at a group of long form series and you’ll find that they are either shonen or shojo series. These shows are aimed at pre-teen and young adult boys and girls. Why? Because they have more free time and disposable income than adults.
Tamako Market © Kyoto Animation
It is no secret that Japan has a brutal work culture, so it is tough for a working adult to stay up to date with an anime series while juggling their responsibilities. It is not impossible, but it is a challenge.
The popular shows, like Yu Yu Hakusho and Sailor Moon aired during after school hours or on Sundays (the only day off school in Japan except for holidays). Bam, airing during those hours gives you the maximum number of viewers. Check out the air times of series sometime, you’ll get a sense of who the audience is.
Kannagi: Crazy Shrine Maidens © A-1 Pictures / Ichijinsha
The working population isn’t as predictable. People have different work hours and off days. So what do you do? You can’t bet that people have DVRs, it’s too risky.
Since Japan has a declining birth rate, there are less young people to target every year. It is no secret that the modern industry has became “otaku focused.” Personal opinions aside, shows that rely on excessive moe and fanservice tend to get slapped with the otaku label.
Himouto! Umaru-chan © Dogakobo / Shueisha
These shows air during the late night weekday hours known as “Otaku O’clock.” The target audience is small, but it is more reliable than the working adult demographic and has been more lucrative than the pre-teen to young adult demographic in recent years.
Kids are easy to entertain. This is not a bad thing. Buy a kid a cheap action figure or doll, a backpack of their favorite character, or a lunchbox and they will be happy. These cheap to make products are a great revenue stream for many franchises. Why else do you think Dragon Ball teams up with KFC for themed food?
No guarantee that Shenron will bring you back from this
The problem is that older audiences don’t want backpacks and lunch boxes. Instead of a cheaply made action figure, the otaku crowd wants a detailed PVC figure. These cost more to produce, and it is reflected in the price.
Other products are hyper limited in appeal. Dakimakuras and oppai mouse pads aren’t going to be carried by chain retailers. Also, not every member of the committee wants to have a sexy dakimakura made of their characters.
This is the clean Monster Musume stuff
Producers offset this limited market appeal by raising the price. Instead of having thousands of kids buying cheap t-shirts and lunch boxes, companies are relying on a few hundred otaku buying overpriced PVC figures and dakimakuras.
This is not good monetization for the production committees, but it’s all they have to work with. In the end, no one wins with this business model.
Different source material
The success of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in 2006 proved that light novel adaptations could be successful in the industry if done right.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya © Kyoto Animation / Kadokawa Shoten
Unfortunately, light novels are not like manga. These books tend to have way more exposition and scene setting than manga does. Since it is a less visual medium than manga, studios adapting light novels have to slog through the writing to see what is necessary for the anime. Keep in mind that most studios are used to adapting manga, so it is a challenge for them.
The reason for the anime being made
The majority of anime is an adaptation of sorts. Depending on the production committee, they might treat the anime as a glorified commercial for the source material.
Katekyo Hitman Reborn! © Artland / Shueisha
Even long running series aren’t free of being treated like a commercial. Katekyo Hitman Reborn! was canceled after 203 episodes and an OVA since Shueisha didn’t see too much of an increase in the manga sales to justify continuing the anime. Due to this, the anime ends at the start of the time skip.
Many committees have a practice that is similar to what American studios call the front 13, back 9. Basically, 13 episodes of a series are ordered. If it is successful, the last 9 that is needed for a full season will be ordered. If not, there tends to be an ending point in the 13th episode to tie up most of the loose ends.
Chihayafuru © Madhouse / Kodansha
Chihayafuru is a rare example of a low selling anime getting a second season due to the increase in manga sales. A total of 50 episodes plus 1 OVA were made.
For anime, one cour (about 10-14 episodes depending on premier date) will be ordered. A combination of viewers, early Blu-Ray and DVD sales, and an increase in source material sales will determine if another cour will be ordered.
Hidamari Sketch © Shaft / Houbansha
Hidamari Sketch is a good modern example. Essentially there are four cours that have been ordered over the course of five years to produce 49 episodes and 12 OVAs. 61 episodes in total, but they were all produced in a more cautious, piecemeal environment instead of ordering them all at once. This is the production model that the industry has moved towards.
If you seen an adaptation that ends between 10 to 26 episodes, odds are either it did not meet sales goals or there is not enough source material.
Nagi no Asukara © P.A. Works
Original series will be within the 10 to 26 range, but since they were written for that allotment, their stories fit it better.
The big take away is that the combination of Japan’s economic recession and declining birth rate has changed how companies produce anime. Anime is not as cheap to make and there are not many kids around to buy cheaply produced merchandise.
This has made the industry cautious when it comes to the length of producing a series.