AT FIRST REVIEWS doubted that “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train”, which hit US theaters in April, could replicate the success it has achieved in its Japanese home market. The animated feature is set in early 20th-century Japan, an unrelated era for non-Japanese viewers. Defying the odds, the film grossed $ 19.5 million in its opening weekend, breaking the US box office record for a first foreign language film.
For most of its history, “anime” was little known outside of Japan. “Astro Boy”, a TV 1963 series that sparked the anime’s first boom, and subsequent hits like “Doraemon” and “Gundam,” were watched primarily by otaku (geeks). The cheesy connotations limited their home appeal. The titles that made their way to the West from the 1970s were also aimed at a niche audience.
Now, gushes Muto Takashi, who runs Dentsu Japanimation Studio, “anime is no longer a subculture; it is a major culture. In 2019, the cartoon-related income of TV, streaming and gaming rights, live entertainment, movie tickets and merchandise sales reached 2.5 billion yen ($ 24 billion). Just under half came from overseas, where the anime market has almost quintupled in size over the past decade. Figures for the pandemic year are scarce but are almost certainly higher. Netflix claims that more than 100 million households around the world streamed at least one of its anime titles in 2020, which is 50% more than the year before. These were in the streaming service’s daily top ten list in nearly 100 countries last year.
Netflix and its competitors, such as Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, have exposed global audiences to a vast library of Japanese anime. The pandemic, which has put many live shoots on ice, has further increased the anime’s appeal to streamers. Animated films are also relatively inexpensive to make. Sudo Tadashi, an anime critic, estimates that an anime show on Netflix costs around 30 to 50 million yen ($ 275,000 to $ 459,000) per episode, a pittance next to the $ 13 million reported for “The Crown”.
Netflix has acquired the distribution rights for 21 films produced by the famous Studio Ghibli in around 190 countries (excluding America, Canada and, ironically, Japan). It also creates its own animated content. In March, the company announced that it would release 40 new anime titles this year, nearly double the number released in 2020. It also signed production agreements with nine anime studios. Last year, Sony, an electronics group with a large entertainment arm, offered to pay $ 1.2 billion for Crunchyroll, which began selling pirated anime content before going legal in 2009 and to be acquired in 2018 by AT&T, an American telecoms giant. Crunchyroll, which now has 100 million registered anime fans worldwide, is a rare example of a specialist David holding his place in a world dominated by generalist Goliaths like Netflix and Disney.
An obstacle to further growth can be flesh and blood. “The industry has struggled to train animators,” says Iwaki Ayaka of the Tokyo-based company MIND Studio. The declining domestic talent pool may find it difficult to meet growing demand. Good news for the animators, whose historically stingy salaries are likely to increase. For anime fans around the world, not so much. ■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Feeling Lively”