Over the past year I’ve seen an ever increasing amount of critics and viewers who are angry that anime is still spurned by those outside of the medium and its communities. While I believe that it is ultimately right we defend the art form from unjust accusations, I also feel that many critics are tackling the problem from the wrong perspective. Because underlying most ‘outsider’ complaints is the same core issue; anime has a curation problem.
People’s first foray into the medium typically comes from Crunchyroll, a site that in 2018 boasted a viewing audience of over 40 million, making it by far the largest streaming provider focusing on anime. Being the perceived leader in anime’s online western distribution brings with it a level of responsibility that so far, the company has failed to truly appreciate. The site has for a while faced some degree of backlash due to it aggressively promoting works such as The Rising of the Shield Hero and Goblin Slayer – which have polarized even longtime anime fans for their distasteful and insensitive depictions of rape.
When the biggest company on this side of the pond makes such brazen marketing decisions, it should come as no surprise to anyone that newcomers to the medium often walk through the door and right back out. A prime example of this came in early 2017 when a New York Times writer faced heavy criticism for his brief but unflattering portrayal of anime, which many believed didn’t give the matter a fair shake.
While it is not unreasonable to iterate that the offerings on Crunchyroll include better shows than the fanservice laden “Akashic Records of Bastard Magical Instructor”, it was still the very first show on the front page that the site was promoting at the time. It’s for this reason that I don’t think the writer came to any conclusions you wouldn’t expect. He, being completely unfamiliar with anime, went to the biggest site available, tried the top few shows it was advertising, then walked away with a negative impression after experiencing some of the medium’s worst qualities.
For western audiences who near universally grew up with broadcast television and hollywood movies as a part of their childhood, and who upon reaching adulthood have usually developed a strong indicator for what their tastes are (aided by giants like Netflix), anime typically lacks a similar consistent history with them. They simply don’t have the feel for anime that is required in order to avoid the droves of bad stuff that inhabits every art form. It shouldn’t be shocking when they decide to just throw in the towel rather than persevere long enough to see what everyone is raving about.
The fact that their initiation into the world of anime can have them watching shows with overbearing levels of fanservice or lolicon pandering characters means that many are rightfully alienated away from the medium. Anime fans who love the medium for all the enriching experiences it provides are also usually the first to understate and decry just how easy it is for people to get a bad first impression of the medium.
Blaming dismissals of anime on western viewing audiences supposed bigotry is, in my strong opinion, just as naive and misguided as the crime of pretending anime is all fanservice and ultra-kawaii moe voices. Anime as an industry is certainly not to blame for this mess, after all, the works it produces simply exist, and people can and do levy individual criticism against these on a case by case basis. Yet I’d argue neither are western audiences to shoulder the blame. When many peoples first insight into anime is through the tinted lens of a streaming company who curates the list of shows they provide, is it not more accurate to blame the ones deciding what to present to their audience rather than the audience itself?
The reality is that passionate anime fans who already have a well developed sense for ‘shows to avoid’ are rarely (if ever) the ones dictating the kinds of experiences people will first have with anime, and while we shouldn’t stop defending the capacity of the medium, neither should we be so quick to dismiss the nuances of why it’s still not taken seriously.