AT FIRST CRITICS doubted that “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train”, which hit American cinemas in April, could replicate the success it achieved in its Japanese home market. The animated feature is set in early-20th-century Japan, an unrelatable era for non-Japanese viewers. Defying the odds, the film raked in $19.5m during its opening weekend, breaking America’s box-office record for a foreign-language debut.
For most of its history “anime” was little-known outside Japan. “Astro Boy”, a TV series from 1963 that sparked the first anime boom, and subsequent hits like “Doraemon” and “Gundam”, were watched mostly by otaku (geeks). Nerdy connotations limited their appeal at home. Titles that made it to the West from the 1970s also catered to niche audiences.
Now, gushes Muto Takashi, who runs Dentsu Japanimation Studio, “anime is no longer a subculture; it is a major culture.” In 2019 anime-related revenues from TV, streaming and gaming rights, live entertainment, cinema tickets and merchandise sales hit ¥2.5trn ($24bn). Just under half came from abroad, 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 says that over 100m households around the world streamed at least one of its anime titles in 2020, 50% more than the year before. These featured in the streaming service’s daily top-ten list in nearly 100 countries last year.
Netflix and its rivals, such as Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, have exposed the global audience to an extensive library of Japanese anime. The pandemic, which put many live-action shoots on ice, further increased the appeal of anime to streamers. Anime films are also relatively cheap to make. Sudo Tadashi, an anime critic, estimates that an anime show on Netflix costs around ¥30m-50m ($275,000-459,000) per episode to make—a pittance next to the $13m reported for “The Crown”.
Netflix has acquired the rights to distribute 21 films produced by the renowned Studio Ghibli to about 190 countries (excluding America, Canada and, ironically, Japan). It is also creating its own animated content. In March the company said it would launch 40 new anime titles this year, nearly double the number released in 2020. It has also signed production agreements with nine anime studios. Last year Sony, an electronics group with a big entertainment arm, offered to pay $1.2bn for Crunchyroll, which began life peddling pirated anime content before going legal in 2009 and being bought in 2018 by AT&T, an American telecoms giant. Crunchyroll, which now boasts 100m registered anime aficionados around the world, is a rare example of a specialised David holding its own in a world dominated by generalist Goliaths like Netflix and Disney.
An obstacle to further growth may be flesh and blood. “The industry has struggled to nurture animators,” says Iwaki Ayaka of the Tokyo-based WIT Studio. The dwindling domestic talent pool could have trouble meeting rising demand. Good news for the animators, whose historically miserly wages may edge up. For anime fans around the world, not so much. ■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Feeling animated”