The author is a life-long fan of anime. The author first acquired a taste for anime at the tender young age of five and has never looked back. The author spends far too much time treading back and forth between Japan their homeland and the United States, where they currently reside. (Apologies for the anonymity, but it was requested by the author. - Ed.)On December 31st, 2012, I walked out of the Mandarake in Akihabara into the chilly Tokyo night. After three days at Comiket, I was beat, but not beat enough to forgo the chance to pick up some last-minute goods before retiring for the night. On my way out, I saw a sign on the shop's door:
"The word of the year is 'imouto'."
So here we are, nearly fifty years after Tetsuwan Atomu. Our long, meandering journey through the history of anime leads us to this pithy little sign posted outside on of Tokyo's largest otaku interest shops, and the word of the year is "imouto". In one simple, elegant sentence, the staff of Mandarake evoked the zeitgeist of a generation: a generation who worships archetypes, not characters; a generation sensitive to trending words and phrases; a generation who revels in the predictability of industrially-produced plot lines and personages. There is no lament in the sentence, "The word of the year is 'imouto'." Only glee. In Dostoevsky's immortal words, from universal reason, we have arrived at universal madness.
THE CHALLENGE OF RECENT HISTORY
In the not-so-distant past, anime was dominated by a few good shows. Their names are familiar to us even today: Space Battleship Yamato, Mobile Suit Gundam, Slam Dunk, Neon Genesis Evangelion. These mammoths of anime crushed everything around it and obliterated them from our memory. It's tempting to tell the history of anime as the history of seminal, groundbreaking, and massively popular works. The passage of time and the power of hindsight helps writers separate the winners from the losers.
Unfortunately, I am writing about events which occurred less than a year ago. Time and hindsight are not on my side.
Was there anything truly groundbreaking in 2012 to begin with? Not really. We had nothing approaching the level of Space Battleship Yamato. We didn't even have anything that could draw attention away from the dominance of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, really. The most-talked about show of the year was a series which many may have found daft and shallow: Sword Art Online. I'm not saying that 2012 was a sea of mediocrity, but to claim that shows like JOSHIRAKU, Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita ("Humanity has Declined"), or even the televised series for Jojo's Bizarre Adventure was groundbreaking...that's grasping at straws.
What do we find in the calm seas of 2012, then? There was a lot to love: from the aforementioned triad of wickedly funny shows (that all seem to start with J) to strange love in the form of Mysterious Girlfriend X and Sankarea, 2012 dished out its fair share of contenders.
Oh, and, of course, we musn't forget the slew of imouto characters.
Mandarake was right when it deemed "imouto" ("younger sister") the word of the year in 2012. The little-sister sorts practically invaded our airwaves. There was Onii-chan dakedo Ai sae areba Kankei Nai yo Ne! (OniAi). There was Kono naka ni hitori, Imouto ga iru! (NAKAIMO). There was Papa no Iu Koto wo Kikinasai! (PapaKiki), which, if we're not going to split semantic hairs, was totally an imouto show...just with higher stakes. Finally, let's not forget about the one imouto show that garnered the most controversy, NISEMONOGATARI. (You can't hide behind your faux-fine-art facade, Shinbo.)
Deny it or not, the Little Sisters have inherited the Earth.
THE ROAD TO MADNESS IS PAVED WITH CHARACTERS THAT ALL LOOK THE SAME
How did we get here? Let me take you back to a conversation I had in the winter of 2008. Picture a small, smoke-filled karaoke box in Ueno, filled with ten or so 30- to 40-year old Japanese men celebrating the end of both Comiket 75 and the year itself. I'm sitting across a small table from Tomo Kataoka, author of Narcissu, one of the most highly regarded visual novels ever made, and head of "Neko Neko Soft", one of Japan's oldest and most highly-regarded eroge production outfits. Tomo's been writing text-and-sex adventures before most of us even knew how to pronounce anime correctly, a true veteran.
He takes a drag from his cigarette, looks at me, and says, "Look, I'm glad you're really into eroge now. I really am. We need more young people playing our games. But you young people..." He pulls another drag. "...are all the same. You start playing eroge when you're 18 or 19. You're really into it. You love the sex. The romance. The girls. The art. The voice acting. The music...everything. By the time you're 22, you've seen it all. It doesn't interest you anymore. You're out. You move on to better things." He snuffs out his cigarette.
"But..." I say.
"Or," he says, lighting another cigarette, "you become one of them."
He tilts his head, indicating the other men sitting around the table. They nod their heads in agreement. "These guys have been playing eroge longer than most people in the industry today have been making them. The girls are all the same to them now. When they play, they look for a certain type of girl. I bet you one of these guys sitting here with us today is really, really into tsundere."
A mousy, bespectacled man with messy hair raises his hand. "Yup," he says, "That's me." And so on, and so forth. A different man claimed dominion over each different archetype.
"You see?" Tomo says, smiling at me. "It's not about the characters. It's about the archetype. When you've seen 100 tsunderes, you know what's up already. You know what you're getting yourself into. You like it. That's why you haven't moved on yet. That's why you're still playing eroge at 35. Everyone else figures it out, gets bored of it, packs up, and goes home."
That was four years ago.
Fast forward to 2012. When was the last time a singular character stood out in the minds of anime viewers everywhere? Probably Haruhi. Maybe you didn't like the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise, but you damn well knew who she was. These days, the spotlight's shared between a handful of characters: the girls of K-On!, the girls of Railgun, the girls of Madoka Magica, the girls (and guys) of Steins;Gate, et cetera. It's telling that every character in the final four of "Saimoe 2012" was from Saki (which saw its second series roll out in 2012). It speaks to the lack of strong single characters in anime today.
The reason for this dearth of memorable characters is simple: archetypes. Kataoka claimed that archetypes drive anime. The truly hardcore don't play eroge and watch anime for single characters. They want a repeatable, familiar, winning formula that can be applied season after season, year after year.
What was the most popular show in 2012?
Answer: SWORD ART ONLINE. Its popularity was dominating. Sword Art Online crushed every other light novel sold that year. Asuna Yuki's countenance graced row after row at Comiket 83. People can (and will) debate about SAO's merits and demerits, but to deny its popularity is lethargic at best, delusional at worst. (And let's not forget that SAO had its own sort of awkward imouto situation. - Ed.)
Despite her runaway popularity, 2012 was not the year of Asuna Yuki. It wasn't even the year of SAO. Nay, it was the year of the imouto a character trope that doesn't even figure significantly in SAO, the clear winner for most popular show of the year. The conversation at large can no longer be dominated by a single show. Gone are the years of the Leviathan, a show so ridiculously popular, it obliterates everything else that aired concurrently from popular memory. (Neon Genesis Evangelion, anyone?)
By the mid-2000s, the anime industry expanded to such a state that blockbusters needed to share the spotlight and contend with each other for a spot in people's memories. Even The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya had to contend with Higurashi and no show since Haruhi has ever come close to dominating conversation in the ani-sphere. Sure, we can talk about Madoka Magica all we want, but Madoka had to share the spotlight with other heavy hitters such as Steins;Gate and The iDOLM@STER (or, I suppose, if you're the kind of person that knows the difference between whiskey and whisky, Mawaru-Penguindrum). Plus, Madoka doesn't come close to touching Haruhi in terms of popular culture penetration.
If a single show can't dominate the conversation in 2012, can a single character? Again, never since Haruhi have we seen a leading woman (or man, for that matter) so new, so unique, and so memorable that s/he dominates conversation. Characters like Asuna did not dominate any, and neither did any of the other charismatic (and quite unique, might I add) leading women of 2012: Mikoto Urabe (MYSTERIOUS GIRLFRIEND X), Rea Sanka (Sankarea), Rikka Takanashi (Chuunibyou Demo Koi ga Shitai!), and the sort.
This is significant. Despite the best effort of creatives to create new, interesting, memorable characters for the public, none of them seem to be able to dominate the conversation in the same way that Haruhi did. Instead, the year went to the imouto not a character, but a concept. A set of minimum requirements (articulated best by the acronym BMW: Blood, Memories and Wonii-chan love) needed to create a certain kind of character. In the eyes of the Mandarake staff, it is the dominance of this trope, this set of rules, which constituted the story of the year. I'd obviously agree.
(LITTLE) SISTER ACT
I'm not going to trace the development of the imouto archetype. Suffice to say that it's been around forever and always will be around. There's nothing more titillating than forbidden romance, and incest is the ultimate forbidden fruit. There's no denying the imouto archetype experienced a renaissance in 2012. OniAi, NakaImo, PapaKiki that's three high-profile imouto-centered shows in three separate seasons. Did I mention Nisemonogatari? Shinbo can't deny that Nisemonogatari is totally a show about little sisters. Throughout 2012, viewers were bombarded with imouto. (I got OniAi and NakaImo tangled up so many times in the second half of the year because they aired one after another. I'd totally forgotten they were completely different shows.)
The imouto figures had gotten popular in 2012. The question is why. It's not an easy one to answer, and I'll make no attempt to back up my claim here, so apologies in advance for my lethargic and lackadaisical effort in answering my own rhetorical question.
Much of it has to do with OreImo, which certainly dominated the conversation for a few brief months in the fall and winter of 2010. Kirino Kousaka finally brought the imouto back into the spotlight. Before that point, from 2006 to 2010, the tsundere ruled the day. (Don't believe me? Just take a look at Rie Kugimiya's voice roles during that four-year span.) Kirino was the gap between tsundere and the newly-resurgent imouto genre. She epitomized the transition of power from one trope to the other. In 2011, we started seeing some variations on the tsundere-imouto hybrid. 2001's OniiSuki was a (poor) attempt at creating a new paradigm for the imouto archetype: neither the subservient, caring version of yesteryear, nor the reprehensible-yet-unreasonably-attractive blend embodied by Kirino. OniiSuki's Nao wanted her big brother. Aggressively.
By 2012, we're seeing all kinds of imouto forms. The classic version was always a quiet figure, someone who yearned for her "onii-chan" but respectfully stayed her distance. Her appeal was a direct result of the restraint she displayed. She was, at best, a quieter, more respectable childhood friend. No longer. We have the aggressively salacious imouto, embodied by ONIAI's Akiko Himenokoji, the logical conclusion of the character type embodied by OniiSuki's Nao. We have the aggressive, tsundere imouto coming out in droves, spearheaded by Kirino. Hell, we even have a story not about imouto, but one man's quest to find his imouto. The variety is insane.
There's probably a parallel to draw here between what happened to the imouto in 2012 and what happened to the tsundere in the late 2000s. The second Lucky Star objected to the use of the word tsundere to describe a variety of different passive-aggressive-bipolar-whatever-you-want-to-call-it girls, the archetype began to fragment. Cooldere. Yandere. A different *dere to describe every different kind of bipolarity under heaven. The splintering of the tsundere archetype into a million different pieces perhaps opened up a space in the popular imagination for something else to invade.
There was one man who saw this coming a mile away: Yutaka "Yamakan" Yamamoto, that hated, despised pariah of the anime world. After the success of Kannagi, he predicted that anime would become more and more fragmentary, saying that shows would rely on inside jokes to draw laughs, and as time went on, these jokes would become discernible to an ever-shrinking group of insiders. Character archetypes would fragment infinitely, creating smaller and smaller niches catering to smaller and smaller portions of the population. Anime would become largely inaccessible to the general public, who do not understand the in-jokes and specific linguistic quirks of seasoned anime veterans. Again, that was four years ago.
Just like Kataoka, Yamakan was right anime has become more insular, more reliant upon its core crowd. The story of the year, therefore, really isn't about imouto, specifically it's about a slow, sustained retreat of the anime industry away from the general public. Instead of expanding and reaching out to the masses, the industry adopted a "patronage" model, catering to the interests of a small, aggressively-spending demographic. It's no wonder the imouto is back in vogue. Think about how unnatural imouto-moe would be to a first-time viewer of anime.
Think about this for a second: In the past five years, anime has become more and more self-aware. There weren't many overtly otaku characters in anime five years ago. There was Genshiken, but we remember it because it was groundbreaking. These days, there's nary a season that goes by without there being a major character involved in anime or manga somehow. Kirino from OreImo embodies the self-aware, self-serving character created by otaku to serve an otaku fantasy. Sena Kashiwazaki from Haganai represents another example. Even shows like Jintai and Joshiraku can't resist poking fun at the absurdities of otaku culture.
Even a show like CHUUNIBYOU DEMO KOI GA SHITAI! became painfully self-aware at times during 2012. The whole show was a meta-commentary on as a cultural phenomenon. Have we forgotten that chuunibyou wasn't even really a thing until A Certain Magical Index and A Certain Scientific Railgun catapulted it into the minds and hearts of otaku everywhere? Within three years, Steins;Gate tore apart the grand vision of Index and its aesthetic. The noir of Raildex was replaced with the goofy, out-of-touch characters we see in Steins;Gate and Chuunibyou. Anime's become very adept indeed at self-parody within the past few years.
It's hard to see where all this self-referential humor is going to go. There are so many shows on the otaku meta-commentary bus these days. The general life cycle of every archetype seems to go something like this:
* A groundbreaking show introduces a new twist on an archetype or concept.
* Other shows begin to copy it in a mad grab for revenue and viewership.
* Some cynical wiseass decides they've had enough and decides to parody the hell out of it.
* People realize what's up and move on to the next best thing or they decide they really like the archetype or concept anyways and it becomes an entrenched niche.
But where do we go from here? What's going to happen to anime if this is what happens? I would say that patronage is no model to run a multi-billion dollar industry, but then again, fine art has been around since the beginning of time. Plus, this trend only applies to the moe subsegment of anime. There'll always be Shonen Jump-inspired shows, as well as shows which don't care at all to be included with prevalent trends in the industry.
Don't forget; Atomu had an imouto, too!
The industry will continue raising new archetypes and shatter them into a million little pieces, creating again-and-again an endless kaleidoscope of characters which all look vaguely similar to one another. In time, these characters will lose their popularity. Years after, some young, aspiring light novel will go into his dim workshop, pick up the pieces of character lying around him and meticulously, carefully, glue them back together into a beautiful corpse, resurrected and ready for consumption by the next generation.
We often think that the highest-quality shows every year the masterpieces define it. I challenge that wisdom. If you wanted to watch something good made in 2012, watch any of the shows I named earlier in this article, but to me, they don't encapsulate what 2012 was all about. If you want to watch a show that truly places 2012 in greater conversation with broader trends in recent history, watch the four imouto powerhouses I had mentioned. Perhaps there's something to be said about the lack of popularity of shows which are genuinely decent, but that's a different story.
NEXT TIME: WE'VE COME TO THE END OF THIS ARDUOUS JOURNEY! HELLO, 2013 AND BEYOND!