Netflix and its rivals are changing anime, for better or worse

Netflix and its rivals are changing anime, for better or worse

In the early 2000s, Dragon Ball Z would play all day on a now defunct channel called Toonami, and I would lie on the sofa from 9am to 5pm with a mixing bowl of cornflakes, watching Goku scream and bulge for that latest power level.

I probably took in just as much advertising as I did anime: there would be at least four five-minute ads per 20 minute show, mostly accident insurance scams for employees who had been crushed by paint cans. That was the first and last anime I watched until I discovered illegal streaming, where I had to contend with fuzzy videos surrounded by frightening pornography – karmic justice for stealing.

This sad experience would be alien to contemporary anime fans, who now possess an embarrassment of legal avenues to watch their favourite shows. Speaking to Bloomberg last week, Netflix’s chief anime producer, Taiki Sakurai, said the platform will launch 40 new anime shows this year. These shows – ranging from adaptations of The Witcher and Resident Evil to original series like Eden, about a human girl born into a robot’s world – will add to the platform’s already formidable lineup, which includes most of Studio Ghibli’s catalogue and an array of the classic series I had to hunt for as a kid: Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion and FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Netflix isn’t the only service trying to get in on the action – it’s locked in battle with Hulu, Amazon Prime and especially Sony, which owns streaming service Funimation, and is trying to buy popular anime streaming service Crunchyroll for $1.2 billion from AT&T, though the United States Department of Justice is investigating the move for antitrust violations.

This tug of war is transforming the industry. Historically, supply outside of Japan was sporadic: fans could wait years for their favourite show, and had to make do with postal orders or swapping tapes at conventions. Some might pay hundreds of pounds to get their hands on legitimate copies of, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Bootlegging, therefore, was common, as were profane and pretentious fansubs (with screen-filling footnotes about translation choices) and grunting nonsensical voiceovers, like the infamously terrible Dragon Ball Big Green dub. Shiro Yoshioka, a lecturer in Japanese Studies at Newcastle University, remembers that when he came over to the UK from Japan in the early 2000s, there was almost nowhere to watch shows legally, save for conventions that screened anime ripped from 1970s television.

Things have changed. Japanese companies used to be archaic – often run by “very old hidebound men” who were slow to embrace the opportunities by cheap fast broadband, says anime historian Helen McCarthy. Now, US companies can get hold of anime before it is broadcast, and cut ahead of the pirate industry. “It wasn’t until Japanese companies realised that their only defence against piracy was actually to stream the stuff themselves translated for free that they began to look at Western partnerships,” McCarthy says.

This is a profound change, and one explanation for the industry’s skyrocketing value – as more fans are able to see shows easily and legally, they stop pirating, so the industry makes more money, and so platforms invest more money, and so on. A lot of people were watching anime before, but they just weren’t paying for it. “Around the world, people were watching anime, but they did it outside the kind of legal official channels,” says Yoshioka. “But I think what’s happening now is that as a result of services like Netflix and Crunchyroll, these things are charted, so to speak – they are now making money, but it doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist before.”

Anime has grown in popularity as it’s got easier to watch. Much like video games, anime is no longer a niche or nerdy pursuit: fans from the 90s have kids now; Actor Michael B. Jordan has released a line of Naruto menswear; musician Megan Thee Stallion cosplays as My Hero Academia (and inspires the show, too). More and more, anime and its archetypes – romance, action, high school, giant robots, even food – have captured the world’s attention. Streaming services have created a common culture.

“The experience of teenagers and twenty-somethings across the rich world is becoming more and more homogenised as we all communicate with each other online,” says McCarthy. “So it’s natural now that teenagers in Britain, teenagers in America, teenagers in France, teenagers in Russia, enjoy the same things as teenagers in Japan.”

The reason for Netflix’s interest in anime, then, is pretty clear. “It makes money,” says McCarthy. “The label ‘anime’, like the label ‘manga’, makes enormous amounts of money and is very attractive to audiences.” It is seen as a key to capturing China, where movies like Your Name have been multi-million dollar hits. Sakurai told Bloomberg that, in the last few months, half of Netflix’s 200 million global subscribers watched at least one anime show; international viewing figures have been rising at a rate of about 50 per cent a year. Blood of Zeus, a Netflix exclusive produced in America, is among the platform’s ten most-watched series in 80 countries.

As platforms try to woo new viewers, anime has other attractions. Like comic books, these shows have voluminous backlogs of lore, often spread across sprawling trans-media worlds. This is a result of ‘media mix’: the process of milking a mythos into as many money-making products as possible – from TV shows, video games, mangas and live-action films, to arcades and key rings.

Streaming is also changing the Japanese industry, where anime is so popular that films like Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba and Your Name are some of best-selling of all time, in any genre, and streaming platforms must compete with local television stations like Fuji TV. Traditionally a production committee will be responsible for marketing and selling anime abroad after it’s been produced, explains Andrew Partridge, co-founder and CEO of Glasgow-based distribution company Anime Limited.

Netflix is shaking up this tradition – it gets exclusive international distribution rights on shows like Knights of Sidonia, and its creating anime built and tailored for specific audiences, like Yasuke, written by Boondocks creator LeShawn Thomas and aimed at a Western audience. “Netflix tends to produce its own work,” says Partridge. “So this was the same concept they wanted in Japan, and it’s leading to some very interesting results.”

Anime is traditionally cheaper to make than American animation, and even cheaper if you make it yourself. “Once you break the back of getting the initial translation, which is the expensive thing, and you’re in a gateway language like French or English, you can carry on reproducing that anime for non-Japanese speaking audiences all over the world,” says McCarthy.

“The best thing about all of this is that there has always been anime for everybody,” says Rayna Denison, a lecturer in Asian media cultures at the University of East Anglia. “There’s been specific anime for women, specific anime for history buffs, specific anime for children and for teenagers. And we’ve tended to just get a tiny tranche of it. So these streaming sites are really helping to expand what we understand anime to be, and that’s great.”

Yet, as the anime label gains value, there will be a fight over what counts as ‘anime’ – a term usually reserved for Japanese made animation. For instance, does the American-made Blood of Zeus count? McCarthy calls the latter “anime as label”, essentially a kind of marketing ploy. “The only reason someone is going to tell me this is anime ‘Made in America’ is because they want my money, and they don’t think they’ll get my money without fooling me into thinking I’m buying anime,” she says. “The key point will come when Netflix demonstrates whether or not it wants to make anime, or whether it wants to make American anime.”

Will Bedingfield is a culture writer at WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield

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Published at Wed, 07 Apr 2021 11:40:15 +0000