I’d say that Naruto is not the last great anime franchise. However, here’s why I’m asking this question.
As many of you know, Japan’s birth rate is quite low. With a total fertility rate of only 1.4 children per woman, Japan’s population is rapidly aging and there are fewer and fewer children. The big franchises of the 90s, such as Pokemon Dragonball, and One Piece, were aimed at children, as is Naruto, which began in the 2000s.
The problem is obvious.
With fewer and fewer children around at all to read the children’s adventure stories, these books will not find their audiences. While working adults can binge-read or binge-watch, they won’t have an interest in all the merchandise that these series are meant to sell since that income must go toward actual needs; series popular with adults don’t lead to the kind of mania you see around Pokemon or Dragonball Z (also, the only reason adults like those franchises is because they themselves watched them as children.) Selling to both boys and girls can help (these franchises were typically aimed at boys), but it’s not a long-term solution. With the dwindling of the younger generation, anime and manga that aspire to be big franchises have a far steeper climb than before.
All this would suggest that Naruto will be the last major franchise. However, all of the series mentioned above have something else in common: they have large followings around the world. With a much larger pool of children to draw from, these series can grow and remain profitable. Based on this alone, there will be great anime franchises beyond Naruto and the others mentioned above.
However — and this is the important one — a series becoming a megahit is pure chance; there is no magic formula that will guarantee iconic status. Pandering to international audiences with specific content as Marvel did with Iron Man 3 is likely to backfire. The best they can do is just make what they were going to make and hope for the best.
But before the franchise can perform internationally, it must perform domestically. And that’s getting tougher and tougher. Nonetheless, it’s still possible to see a Naruto-style anime franchise hit it big in the future, but the chances are not looking good at all. Such is the way of the world.