TOKYO – Anime, the popular animation genre from Japan, is witnessing a resurgence in popularity thanks to international streaming platforms that have rescued the cultural phenomenon from a crisis and taken anime series and films across the world.
After captivating generation of fans in many countries through famous TV series such as “Mazinger Z,” “Dragon Ball,” “Shin-chan,” Japanese animation has found a new medium to reach bigger audiences, just when the industry was struggling to sustain its success.
Anime has traditionally depended on the Japanese market, apart from occasional productions being aired overseas. But in the first decade of the 21st century, production was hit by Japan’s demographic decline and falling incomes from domestic TV and video sales.
“Creating an anime series takes a lot of time and money,” industry expert Ryusuke Hikawa told EFE, adding that the average budget for the typical 13-episode season of an anime series comes up to around 200 million yen ($1.83 million).
This cost was usually recovered by TV broadcasts, which functioned as extended advertisements for selling complete seasons or extended versions of the series on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray and other marketing systems, the critic said.
However, sales of physical video formats plummeted with the arrival of cheap internet and smartphones, which opened a new window into the same content – often offered free or illegally – and the studios had to look for all kinds of survival tactics, such as organizing fan-events.
However, despite the adverse scenario, revenues in the sector have been growing continuously since 2010, reaching the record figure of 2.18 trillion yen in 2018.
In 2017 and 2018, overseas sales shot up to overtake the domestic market for the first time and accounted for more than half of total sales, according to data released by the Association of Japanese Animation (AJA).
The main driver of the growth is the rising demand for content distribution in China and international streaming platforms such as Netflix and Crunchyroll, AJA’s deputy business director Hiromichi Masuda told EFE.
“We did not want to depend so much on overseas sales, but many productions have automatically had a commercial release in other countries,” said Masuda, adding that the quality of many of the productions in recent years had been a determining factor in their success.
In the past decade, the Japanese industry has again produced worldwide hits such as “Your Name” (2016) – the biggest blockbuster in anime history with a worldwide collection of $360 million – which overtook Ghibli Studio’s Oscar-winning film “Spirited Away” (2001).
A strong anime push by Netflix has forced other audiovisual giants such as Sony and Warner to invest in the sector through subsidiaries Funimation and Crunchyroll and “completely transformed the industry in the last five years,” said writer and journalist Roland Kelts, an expert on the influence of Japanese culture in the United States.
The global anime boom is “definitely happening in spite of the meager and often self-sabotaging efforts of the Japanese industry to export its intellectual property,” said the Japanese-American author.
Masuda said Japanese animators realized the great potential of the internet and created their own content platform Daisuki in 2013 with state support, although the project failed due to problems related to different regulations in different countries and copyrights issues.
He added that Japanese studios were still focused on the production and did not have a common strategy to promote their distribution.
A prime example is the much-acclaimed Studio Ghibli – founded by anime masters Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki and a champion of traditional handcrafted animation – which gave up its reluctance to online distribution and announced an agreement with Netflix for streaming 21 of its films starting this month.
A string of contracts with foreign platforms has also generated concerns among Japanese animators over the possibility of the multinational companies trying to assume more control over the content or taking advantage of their popularity to pay less to creators, the AJA deputy director admitted.
“It is possible that an increasing amount of anime would exclusively target foreign audiences, like some of the works co-produced by Netflix. (…) But if anime has been appreciated so much outside Japan, it is because of its Japanese-ness,” Hikawa said.
Kelts said the fusion of productions could “redefine” anime to make it “more inclusive and diverse” but could also dilute its “unique cultural qualities” which have made the genre different from the animation in other countries such as the US or France.