The coronavirus pandemic has yielded a lot of surprising information for the global film and television industry. One of the most curious new facts to emerge is that Japanese anime might just be the most COVID-resistant form of popular entertainment in the world.
At the height of the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, when total US box office sales fell 80% for the year and Japan’s theatrical market fell 45%, the total Japanese movie industry anime contracted by just 3.5%, with a total market value of around $21.3 billion (over 2.4 trillion yen). During that same difficult year, the anime industry also produced its biggest theatrical hit of all time: Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Trainan action-packed period fantasy that grossed nearly $48 million in North America, $365 million in Japan, and $504 million worldwide, becoming the biggest theatrical blockbuster of any genre of 2020 ( he beat chinese war movie the eight hundred, which took in $461 million in its home market). And anime’s outsized revenue has only continued. The top three titles at the Japanese box office in 2021 were all anime hits; and Jujutsu Kaisen 0a dark fantasy anime based on a manga series of the same name by Gege Akutami, grossed $106 million there earlier this year, as well as $34 million in North America for a worldwide total of $187 million.
According to consultancy Parrot Analytics, global demand for anime content has grown 118% over the past two years, making it one of the fastest growing content genres throughout the world. pandemic (the company measures its demand metric by combining consumer data with activity from social media, social video and independent research).
“Even in times of a pandemic, the anime market has always flourished,” noted Kana Koido, partner of Japanese independent distributor The Klockworx during a recent panel discussion at the Far East Film Festival. “Japan is such a unique market, where even though the total box office in 2020 was almost half of what it was in 2019, there was still this rare content that did better than ever.”
Those who are exploited in the Japanese anime industry say that the harbingers of these boom times have been building for years. In the decade before the pandemic, from 2009 to 2019, the total market value of the Japanese anime industry doubled to $22.1 billion, according to the Association of Japanese Animations.
The key force behind such growth has been a growing demographic embrace of anime culture, both in Japan and among consumers virtually everywhere. Once the only province of otaku – Japan’s hardcore anime and manga fans, once stereotyped as socially awkward misfits too engrossed in their fantasy worlds to partake in “normal society” – anime is already far down the line. well-trodden path of niche subcultures that found themselves suddenly embraced by mainstream society as the next cool thing.
“Over the past five to ten years, in Japan and the West, there’s almost been this anime renaissance that’s happened, where it’s gone from this thing that you’d be bullied to like to something all kinds of people want to talk about,” says 27-year-old anime influencer Joseph Tetsuro Bizinger, who goes by Joey The Anime Man on YouTube, where his channel has grown over the past decade to 3. 2 million subscribers. “It was through this movement that gaming went through in the 1990s, where if you played games you were a nerd, until everyone was playing games That’s why animated movies are becoming such a massive thing It’s not just a few nerds in your class who are going to see [the latest anime release] – now the whole class will leave.
Bizinger adds, “And I think that’s the main reason why streaming sites are trying to get as much anime as possible, because they see the greatest potential in it now.”
At the AnimeJapan convention in Tokyo in March, Netflix revealed that it would be releasing 40 new anime titles, spanning a growing range of genres, in 2022 alone. Characteristically, the streamer had data to justify the Expansion: In 2021, more than half of all Netflix subscribers globally watched at least animated content on the platform.
Other platforms report the same results.
“We’re seeing a growing appetite for anime in all demos, in all countries,” notes Gaku Narita, executive director of original content for Japan at The Walt Disney Co., who is also in the process of developing anime. significantly increase its production of licensed and original anime titles on Disney+. “It’s increasingly becoming a form of mass entertainment without borders.”
But the anime also continues to operate under its own unique logic. Setting it apart from most forms of filmmaking, anime’s theatrical earning power has been enhanced rather than eroded by the streaming revolution, which continues to increase the accessibility and awareness of key titles, while by shortening the cycle between the release of hit anime television series and the spin-off feature films that typically follow in theaters. And anime’s strong fan culture and event-driven nature of its releases would seem almost tailor-made for a time when the theatrical model needs to emphasize the benefits of the in-person community experience more than ever.
“The atmosphere of going to the theater to see an anime is very different from watching a normal Hollywood movie,” notes Asa Suehira, chief content officer at anime streamer and distributor Crunchyroll, which builds US anime audiences. for years doing Japanese television. releases instantly available via simulcast. “People dress up in cosplay, they shout from the crowd when their favorite character appears on screen or sing along to the songs,” he explains. “It’s really more of an event than just watching a movie.”
The anime boom times triggered a predictable wave of consolidation and transactions in the industry. Last year, Sony Pictures Entertainment acquired Crunchyroll, one of the largest anime streamers based in the United States, for $1.2 billion from AT&T. The Japanese conglomerate has since merged Crunchyroll with Funimation, the anime streaming service it already owned, creating the largest specialized platform devoted to the subculture. AMC Networks followed in January with the acquisition of Houston-based Sentai Holdings, a global provider of anime content and merchandise best known for its popular anime-focused streaming service, HIDIVE. Meanwhile, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video also continue to expand their anime offerings, while HBO Max, which has yet to launch in Asia, has been known to line up licensing deals.
Anime also seems to be immune to the recent reassessment of the streaming business model – at least so far. Netflix’s disappointing first quarter financial results, which led to the fall of the streamer’s first subscriber in a decade and a 25% drop in its share price, have only boosted the anime’s value.
While Netflix is cutting back on outsized content spending in most areas, it’s likely to spend more on anime. The US and European markets are thought to be completely saturated for Netflix, but Asia-Pacific is the only region where the streamer still has room for growth – and it’s the region in the world that watches the most anime. While subscribers stagnated or declined virtually everywhere else last quarter, Netflix added 1.1 million Asia-based subscribers. And as the world’s third-largest economy, Japan in particular is vital growth territory. Only 5 million of Japan’s population of 121 million currently subscribe to Netflix – but 90% of those who subscribe watched anime in 2021, the streamer recently reported.
A similar logic will apply to the various other Hollywood and Silicon Valley streamers who are now clamoring for growth in the region.
Predictably, as in so many other areas of the economy today, the torrent of global demand has driven up prices for the limited existing supply of top anime titles and production partners. .
“Capital overflow isn’t necessarily a good thing – due to the relatively small size of the industry and the number of people who work in it and draw the frames for these shows,” says Kohei, creative director of the anime at Netflix. Obara. “It’s not like we can get two or three times as many instantly just because the money is there.”
Obara estimates that there are only around 5,000 anime artists and creators working in Japan today – a figure that shows how Japan’s creative community already punches above its weight globally. (The US is estimated to have thousands more, with Disney’s Pixar – one of many Hollywood animation giants – employing over 1,200 people.)
The cascade of foreign investment has also brought benefits. Despite its central role in Japan’s popular identity, the anime industry has always had a darker side – studios notorious for their harrowing hours, operating conditions with few benefits, and a laborious workforce. work that many employers considered disposable. Companies that violate Japanese labor laws in this way are called burakku kigyōor “black societies,” and the Tokyo anime world was once known for them.
“If you take a snapshot at any given time, you still see some of those old, outdated ‘black’ conditions that exist throughout the industry,” says Disney’s Narita. “But overall, the influx of capital has really brought about a lot of positive changes. It’s not just the privileged few who are getting richer; the artists on the ground are starting to make decent money.
The boom should also bring exciting developments for fans, in addition to easier access to titles. Production budgets for premium anime projects increased by a year and a half
three times, say insiders. And with ever-increasing demand for their talent, top anime artists enjoy greater creative freedom than ever before.
“There are more and more distribution opportunities and options, which has really increased the production budgets,” adds Genki Kawamura, one of the most prominent anime producers, who regularly works with prominent artists like Mamoru Hosoda (Mirai), Makoto Shinkai (your name) and Tetsurō Araki (Netflix’s latest animated feature, Bubble). “It means there’s more scope in what we can creatively express – which is really a good thing.”