The West’s role in anime production is more discussed than ever. Companies like Amazon and Netflix are attempting to enter the anime streaming market, and Western corporations are showing up in the credits at an ever-increasing rate. The difficulty in finding accurate info on this topic means that misinformation is everywhere, so it can be hard to get a real sense of what role the West is playing. Fortunately, accurate info on the subject is out there, and I’ll do my best to deliver it here.
First of all, it’s important to note that the West does matter to anime production and distribution. This shouldn’t have to be refuted; after all, works wouldn’t be marketed to the West if we didn’t matter. But it’s common to hear that Japan simply doesn’t care about the overseas market, untrue as that is.
It would be wrong to say that the West has always been a significant influence on anime but to say it’s had no influence is blatantly untrue. There’s a number of cases in which Western companies were very directly involved with production. Take the famous case of The Big O season 2, which was produced by request of Cartoon Network. Even better, look at the 2003 adaptation of Kino’s Journey. If you take a glance at the credits you’ll see that ADV Films was one of the companies that helped to fund it. This wasn’t common at the time, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to imply that the West has always been a powerhouse, but it’s clear that even in the mid-2000s overseas consumers had some influence.
And if overseas consumers had some influence in the past, they have a lot more now. Take the 2016 data from The Association of Japanese Animations, which states that between 2014 and 2015 overseas revenue increased by about 78%. It’s certainly true that a large portion of this growth comes from China, which is also making its way into the anime production sphere, but there’s growth in the West as well. You can look at Toei’s quarterly reports and see that while China seems to be growing fastest, there’s significant increase in the US too.
Things have changed since the early 2000s, and anime is more popular than ever. Light novels release in the West and are successful, anime movies can get theater runs even if they’re more niche, and manga sales have more than recovered from the recession. Space Dandy aired on TV in America before it aired in Japan and shows like the Ancient Magus’ Bride premiere at Western conventions. Crunchyroll boasts over 1 million subscribers despite the limited availability of their shows; this simply would not have been feasible a decade ago.
Of course, that’s all in terms of distribution. It should be obvious that the West is more influential now on the mere basis of buying products more often, but what about the production side of things? Has Western influence increased there as well? It has, and to figure out what effect that has had we have to look at the two main companies behind this expansion: Netflix and Crunchyroll.
Let’s begin with Netflix. Frequently criticized in the Western community for their refusal to simulcast shows, Netflix has gone from a platform with a few anime into a serious player in the field. While many of the shows on their platform are simply licensed — albeit at higher prices than average — they are in fact producing their own shows. Most notable is the upcoming Masaaki Yuasa anime, Devilman Crybaby, as well as other shows such as Production I.G.’s B: The Beginning. It’s hard to say whether these shows would get made or not without Netflix’s influence, but they certainly have played a role in their creation.
But what does this mean for the industry as a whole? Many producers and fans are claiming that this could revolutionize the industry. Some Netflix shows aren’t beholden to production committees, groups made up of various companies that help to fund a show, hoping to get something out of it. When Netflix is the head of a show they’re often the only ones in charge, giving creators and studios more freedom. Additionally, while Netflix shows certainly have deadlines, they aren’t nearly as harsh as those for seasonal anime, allowing production to go much smoother with far fewer drawbacks, a big gain in an industry renowned for frequently falling behind on projects.
But is Netflix really the savior of the industry? The animators themselves don’t seem to think so. Netflix certainly provides a larger budget for shows they work on and pays more for their licenses, but animators on twitter made it clear that they weren’t seeing much of this money. This is a bit of speculation, but I don’t think it’s absurd to say that the increased money might be going towards producers, hence their readiness to work with Netflix. Again, I can’t say that definitively, but the money has to be going somewhere and producers seem like a plausible place given the circumstances.
That’s not to say that Netflix is making things any worse for the industry, at least not yet. If they go through with their plans of increasing the number of shows that could be a problem, as overproduction is a huge issue right now, but it’s not as if there’s any reason to believe Netflix shows treat their animators worse than average. And some of the shows they’re working towards are really cool, especially Devilman Crybaby. If that show is only getting made because of Netflix then it’s worth praising them for that, but don’t buy the PR that they’re fixing everything. Their shows might be a bit better than the rest of the industry, but given how broken anime production is, a bit better isn’t going to cut it.
Crunchyroll is the other big name in Western anime production right now, and its approach differs significantly from Netflix. While Netflix tries to totally control the shows they have a hand in for better or for worse, Crunchyroll usually takes a more hands-off approach. This might be by necessity, as Crunchyroll has nowhere near as much money as Netflix and can’t afford to single-handedly pay for multiple shows a year, but it leads to a very different outcome.
In absence of the ability to dominate production, Crunchyroll merely joins production committees while partnered with the trading company Sumitomo. This isn’t particularly strange; TV channels are part of committees all the time, and Japanese streaming services are as well, but it is worth noting because Crunchyroll is a Western company.
While Crunchyroll might not be making all the decisions on shows they produce, they’re definitely coming in strong. They only began joining production committees in 2016, whereby my count they worked on 4 shows; Anne Happy, Kiznaiver, Luluco, and Nanbaka. In 2017 this has increased by a massive degree; as far as I can tell they’ve been on the committee for 13 shows this year.
More interestingly, they’ve lead two of these committees. Production committees are credited such that the companies that contributed the most are listed at the top, and while that wasn’t true for any of the shows they worked on in 2016, in 2017 Crunchyroll sits atop the committees for both Isekai Shokudou and Urahara.
So what role does Crunchyroll serve in particular? Like I said, they don’t have the ability to immediately change things like Netflix, and most shows Crunchyroll works on air on TV in Japan, meaning they have to follow traditional deadlines. As a result, the increased time given to Netflix’s shows does not appear to exist for Crunchyroll-funded anime. There’s no specific information on the animators who work on the shows they help fund, but it’s fairly likely that their wages are the same as average, and there’s no reason to believe studios are getting a better deal.
In fact, it’s worth noting that Isekai Shokudou, the first show they lead, kind of had an abysmal production. The show had way more key animators and animation directors than any show should, which is a serious problem given the fact that it was basically a slideshow. This isn’t abnormal in the industry; in fact, it’s rather common, so it’s unlikely that this is Crunchyroll’s fault, but it also makes it clear that they aren’t capable of fixing things.
Still, their influence is notable. Urahara this season is almost entirely a Crunchyroll brainchild; not only do they lead the committee, but the creator of the manga also works for the company, and only one other company is on the committee at all. This show is also weirdly-produced so it isn’t exactly the best example of what some people hope Western influence will result in, but it does show that the West does matter to anime production right now.
It’s exciting to see the West get into anime production, though I hope I’ve made it clear that they aren’t and can’t be the saviors of the industry. The glorious Western companies aren’t going to fix things, because they can’t and because it’s not particularly in their interests to do so.
It’s certainly worth looking at the wider results of this growing Western influence. It’s frequent that you see people worried that Western companies don’t know what anime fans want, and are going to somehow twist anime with their arrival, destroying its uniquely Japanese characteristics.
I’ll be honest here: this is an absurd fear. A brief look at the kinds of shows these companies are funding makes it clear that they aren’t diluting anime in the slightest. Netflix’s shows are definitely aimed at a certain type of anime fan who wants darker, “more mature” stories, but it’s hardly like those were non-existent back when the West “didn’t matter”. Furthermore, Crunchyroll is ending up on the committees for shows that are incredibly Japanese. Kiznaiver and Luluco, as Trigger anime, obviously have some Western influence, but they’re also shows that I can’t imagine being made in America. There’s simply no need to worry about this whole idea in the first place. Some of the shows Crunchyroll is on the committee for this year include A Centaur’s Life, Kino’s Journey, and Kemono Friends. If they’re funding seinen-style action and slice of life shows, then what exactly is getting eliminated here?
Western influence isn’t corrupting Japan, but as I’ve made clear, neither of these companies is an angelic savior of workers. People who are too distrustful of Western influence are quite present, but those who believe that companies are going to come in and give decent rights to workers are either ignorant or are lying to you. Anime production is broken and needs fixing, but you can’t rely on companies to do that. It doesn’t matter if they’re Western, Japanese, or even Chinese; the industry is broken on such a fundamental level that you’re never going to find some quick and easy solution.
The West does matter, and we do have influence, but we can’t overstate that influence. I absolutely think it’s cool that the West is producing anime now, and I think that decade-old misconceptions about our role need to disappear. But we shouldn’t sugarcoat things and act like we can fix the problems that we have little to no influence over. I’m not going to urge you to support Crunchyroll or Netflix in their endeavors; if you like what they’re doing, go ahead, but I’m not going to cheerlead for them. Instead, I’d encourage anyone listening to use our actual influence as a community to meaningfully help the workers within it. There are numerous ways to help, including some animator patreons, but most notable is the Animator Dormitory Project, which helps animators in expensive cities like Tokyo afford their rent. This is, of course, a stopgap measure, and supporting it isn’t going to fix the industry’s problems, but it will have a meaningful impact by helping those who make the anime we care about, and if you ask me that’s worth doing.
I’d like to thank the people over at Sakuga Blog for making this piece possible. Without the work they’re doing, information on anime production would be absurdly hard to find. They’re vital to building a community that’s aware of the realities behind the industry, both the good and the bad. If you’d like to support them, check out their patreon. And make sure to go beyond this post and do your own research on the industry. Every one of us has the ability to make this community more knowledgeable about the media we consume.
The credits of various Crunchyroll-funded anime