Is Sequel Culture Killing Anime?

Studio 3Hz’s Blackfox, which released on Crunchyroll at the start of October, is an entirely unfinished product. Initially developed as a normal, single cour TV anime, production difficulties eventually saw its first arc reshaped into a film, with the narrative’s conclusion still up in the air; though it must be said that those who believe the movie is a poorly condensed version of the entire show poorly condensed the SakugaBlog article they learned this from, and there’s no particular reason to believe that more movies won’t come out if this one is a success, seeing as some amount of pre-production is doubtlessly already finished.

Still, even with that potential for more, Blackfox presents a problem, one I’ve always found difficult to discuss as an anituber, especially during the periods in which I was anxious to put out videos while various seasonal shows remained relevant. As weekly anime continues to take up a larger and larger part of anime discussion, as mass culture trends inexorably towards franchise building and sequel baiting, how are we actually supposed to discuss and criticize media? (Hey, before the video continues, I’d suggest you donate to the 2019 Animator Dormitory Project, which is quite far from its funding goal. Always support workers.)

All 10 of 2018’s top grossing films were part of franchises, many of them direct sequels, and a majority of them have their own sequels planned. Given that the average profit rate continues its tendency to fall worldwide, risky ventures, outside of very specific fields, simply aren’t worthwhile to most of the already-established firms and investors. In such an environment, the endless production of sequels and remakes makes financial sense; it’s guaranteed to deliver buyers, and in many cases require lower labor costs than the development of new IPs. This is simply the state of the culture industry today, and while it bears similarities to past periods, sequels are, after all, hardly a new thing, the overwhelming nature of this franchise conglomeration, all centered around a few specific studios, has taken on a decisively new character, fitting for a new age of monopolies. Where sequels used to be a possibility in all but specific genres, they are now an inevitability for anything popular. Hollywood, and by extension, the culture industry more broadly, has, to borrow a term from Thomas Leitch, made virtually all media “sequel-ready”, even if those sequels never actually arrive.

Furthermore, the growth of digital distribution has had its own effects, ones we in the anime community are well aware of. Instant access to our favorite shows, through legal or illicit means, takes no more than a few clicks of the mouse and taps of the keyboard, and while this opens up practically all anime that’s ever been produced, it has tended, in practice, to centralize the community’s focus on shows that are immediately airing, unless they’re able to grow so absurdly massive that they’re capable of sustaining fandoms even when no material is being released. Even for those works, like Yuri on Ice, more is almost always promised to be shortly arriving.

It’s because of this that those hailing the end of classic anime may be right in one respect: anime is far more disposable nowadays due to a decrease in the rate of actually owning the shows we watch, and because of a shift away from TV networks dictating what would be watchable and when. The old-school coalescing around one particular series is simply no longer possible. Where those like Gigguk go wrong is in associating this mostly with cultural shifts in the community, rather than seeing it as an inevitable function of the material changes in anime distribution, and increasingly, production. After all, why keep discussing the six-month-old original when another season of Sword Art Online is mere days away from debuting? Well, the answer is that there isn’t a reason to, unless you make it your active mission to do so.

Yet when all of these material factors add up, they leave us with one fact: most of the stuff we’re consuming isn’t finished, and in many cases, we don’t know when it will be. Is My Hero Academia done when any particular season of it ends? Of course not. So, when will it be? Well, that’s harder to say, as it’s unlikely to end for as long as both Horikoshi and Shuueisha see it as worth continuing. Even theoretically complete works, such as Food Wars, are never gone for good; there’s always the significant chance of a sudden sequel appearing from nowhere, as has been happening more often recently; just look at Fruits Basket or Cardcaptor Sakura for some strong examples. And that makes criticism very difficult. It’s nigh-impossible to state a straightforward opinion of a show that isn’t meaningfully over. Sure, it’s easy enough to say that you really like HeroAca’s Hideout Raid Arc, and season 3 in general, but wouldn’t that change if elements of that season end up being used later in the series in ways that hurt what you enjoyed about it in the first place? As I’ll be getting to in just a bit, this isn’t merely a theoretical concern; it very much affects current criticism, and it forces critics to either take an aggressively ignorant position of brushing over the uncertain nature of their thoughts, or to take an overly meek position of hedging their bets and constantly stating, “Now this could change, but.”

So, to finally return to Blackfox, it immediately becomes clear the issues that criticizing works before they’re completed can have, and the impossible bind that fans and critics alike are put in by this new framework of unfinished series. It’s worth noting that Blackfox has not been universally beloved by those who’ve watched it, and I doubt it would be even if it had been a TV series as initially planned. It’s decision to—very light spoilers here—turn towards an anti-revenge plotline is one of the chief complaints, and frankly, while I have no problem with it myself and saw that development coming from a mile away, that’s just an ordinary case of missed expectations, the same sort that would always arise.

However, anyone reviewing or writing about Blackfox has to acknowledge that it’s not done. It ends on a massive cliffhanger, one that reveals a certain character is more integrated into the main plot than was explicitly said previously, and the chief antagonist is not only still at large, but living his life perfectly well. Indeed, as I described, all that’s portrayed in the film itself is what would be the TV anime’s first act, the section where the leads are gathered together and the true scope is revealed. When writing about the movie, therefore, you have to ask yourself: will this ever be completed? It very well may be, but there’s no way to know, and the entire quality of it hinges on its completion. It is absolutely unfinished, and because of that, it’s absurd to have to judge it as its own product, seperate from the potential future conclusion that would tie up all its ends. Yet, we have to.

I’d love to talk about why Blackfox works for me, how the main characters reveal some honestly quite impressive writing unfortunately bogged down by the far weaker antagonists, discussing what the story means as a whole. But that’s not possible. Because the story isn’t a whole, and there’s no way to even know if it ever will be. The biggest problem of this sequel-ready regime isn’t that works go on long past their expiration date, though that’s an issue in itself; it’s that there’s no way to know, and thus no chance to simply put everything down and assess these works in their totality. Criticising Blackfox is possible, yes, but it’s unsatisfactory, as a simple result of this system of production we’ve become embedded within.

One of my favorite non-anime examples of this is the video game Virtue’s Last Reward, part of the Zero Escape series. A satisfying sequel to its predecessor, 999, in itself, the number of unpredictable yet well-foreshadowed twists is astounding, and it does a fantastic job of setting up intriguing hooks for the next game in the series. Unfortunately, that game Zero Time Dilemma, utterly fails to follow through with most of the broad-strokes plot that VLR set up, and in doing so, it’s earned the ire of significant parts of the community, myself included. But really, isn’t much of the problem that VLR set up hooks it could never satisfyingly fulfill?

Matthewmatosis reflected this same thought in a recent video of his: we’ve got to blame unfinished products that send checks their sequels can never cash just as much as we do those sequels. If Uchikoshi, the games’ writer, had known that ZTD wasn’t going to fulfill what he’d set up, he shouldn’t have written it like that. And yet, how could a critic reviewing the game when it first came out know what would happen? The increase in works that rely on other works for their true conclusions makes it impossible to truly judge anything solidly: when everything will have a sequel, and nothing is ever over, complete thoughts simply never arise. This is made even worse by other forms of serialization; anime obviously have weekly episodes, but even games are increasingly taking an episodic formula.

Given my experience with Zero Escape, I run into problems even attempting to discuss Uchikoshi’s newest game, AI: The Somnium Files. See, the game has room for a sequel, and even works which don’t have that room are cut into to make some nowadays if the producers think the hack job will be profitable enough. It boasts its own strong narrative, with conclusions to all but one major point, and yet a sequel could tear that total consistency asunder. I adored my time with the game, but those memories may be lit aflame in just a few short years, and there’s no way to know for sure that won’t happen. Again, while the potential for sequels has always existed, this specific expectation of them has not, and it is not necessarily a positive development in all respects.

Need I even speak of my fears about a new Nier game, and the potential problems that could result from the series’ newfound success leading to a mangled product with too much corporate interference? It’s not hard to imagine that possibility. The text has become, in Umberto Eco’s words, infinite, and any ability to formulate a conclusive opinion is routinely cut off and disrupted. I have no desire to act like an alarmist, and simply put, the material realities that led to this state can’t be changed by my whining about them. This is just how things are now. But this infinity of the text, this constant disruption, does not strike me as a fact which is beneficial to our consumption of art, or, to make a bit of a leap, our psychology as a whole.

To wrap this back around, how I’m supposed to critique unfinished products is something I constantly ask myself. In the bygone days of early 2018, when I was putting a video out at least once a week, I frequently wrote of airing shows, and from time to time, my assumptions about those works were totally upended as they continued. Yet, it’s impossible not to discuss those works as they air. The increasing transience of viewer attention forces it materially, as anyone attempting to make some sort of income, even a paltry one, on criticism has to appeal to audience expectations and release content on things people care about. Beyond the monetary incentive, algorithmic forces such as YouTube structurally privilege videos about airing works due to their integration of search engine popularity.

But even for an ideal subject, one who only wants to write with no concern for their criticism actually being seen, it’s inevitable that they’re going to talk about things as they come out. Of course viewers won’t simply shut up and wait until something is, somehow, entirely over, never to be iterated upon again. Such a thing isn’t possible, at least without some drastic shifts to the entire way media is produced and consumed, and even if it were, I’m not sure it’d be preferable. Many works live and die on the very discussion that dries up after their completion. A series like last season’s Given was not that popular as it began airing, and it’s thanks to the many fans who promoted it as a damn good romance that it eventually got so many viewers. That simply wouldn’t be possible if we refused to discuss series that aren’t done.

If I had to devise an actual plan here, I would say that our criticism of unfinished works should always couch itself in its own contingency, clearly marking out the fact that the topics of discussion just aren’t done, and might not be for a long time. At the same time, we can’t react to what we’re consuming with the context of yet-untold events, and it’d be absurd to expect anyone to. No one who praised Virtue’s Last Reward’s twists was wrong to do so at the time, even if, in hindsight, their inability to validate themselves has proven them weak. Similarly, criticism of Blackfox for feeling rushed and light on characterization may be rendered laughable by future installments, or it could be validated if more never arrives. It’s a tough balancing act, and one we’re forced into making by the conditions in which we live, and all we can do is attempt to keep both feet planted firmly on the ground, for whatever minor good that might do us. After all, for whatever pundits may claim, it’s not critics or consumers who’ve ultimately created this culture of sequels and franchization: it’s capital’s fundamental laws. Yep, you knew I had to get an explicit jab at capitalism in there, didn’t you? The regime of the unfinished work promises to reign until a new era. Might as well embrace it.

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